Monthly Archives: November 2015

Plans? What plans?

Our weather router told us to bypass Minerva Reef, a convenient stopping off point about a third of the way to New Zealand because he said some weather was blowing through there on Friday and we’d want to be well south of it beforehand. Unfortunately that meant we’d be hit with worse weather further south, a few days before landfall in New Zealand. We started off, and after a first 24 hours of big seas and strong winds we settled down to a day and a half of picture perfect sailing, steady wind on the beam, seas moderating, and we pushed the other concerns to the back of our mind.

Then on Tuesday afternoon our wind abandoned us. No problem, our weather guy told us we’d have to motor a bit and we’d been making good time so far. But EV does not motor very fast in this big Pacific swell. We motor on one engine for economy but our engines are small and don’t push us very fast. If we ran both engines we’d burn twice the fuel but only gain about a knot of speed. So for about 18 hours we slogged southwest, watching the waypoints and the predicted weather we expected to encounter and we weren’t liking it at all. The miles we’d banked during the good sailing were all but given up by the slow motoring.

Wednesday morning I ordered up new weather info via satphone, we looked at the chart, and got an email from Macushla that there were quite a few boats waiting out the coming trough at Minerva Reef. Well if they think it’s safe, we reasoned, then we’re going. We were about 30 miles east of the reef and we altered course west, with an ETA of about 2:30pm.

With the engine running we have hot water and we took luxurious warm showers. As we approached the reef we hailed on VHF and got the lay of the land from Oceanna and Saraoni and by a little after 2pm we had the anchor down at the North Minerva Reef Yacht Club.  

This is one of those crazy places you can only visit by private yacht. It’s a circle of coral reef but no land. The pass is calm and wide and once inside the lagoon it’s like a lake with only the tiniest bit of swell pouring over the reef. I think part of the reef dries out at low tide and beckons for a walk but right now we’re tidying up the boat and ourselves, getting the salt washed off the decks and eating some lunch. We’ll have a good night’s sleep tonight and get the weather outlook from the other boats tomorrow.

Maybe Jack won’t be spending his birthday at sea after all!


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Day of reckoning

We got the call right after the cruisers morning net on VHF radio. Escape Velocity, Escape Velocity, Escape Velocity… Shipwright. We have to talk, can you come into the shop around 1330? What shop? The one behind the fish market. I thought that was Trouble in Paradise, where we had left our raw water pump to have its borrowed seals and bearings replaced. Ok but– No buts, I’ll see you then.

Soon after, Escape Velocity, Escape Velocity, Escape Velocity…Marine Power, we have to talk. It’s a day of reckoning. These guys are like doctors after the results get back to them…you’ll have to come in for a talk while they issue the coup de gras. At least it’s in the same “building”. I say building but in truth it’s a roof with a fence around it and apparently a different business at every bench.

I dinghied in and found Shipwright Alan smiling with my autopilot in his hands. Checks out A-OK so can you be on your boat around 1500 so we can see what’s going on in situ? Sure. Next up was the guy with the raw water pump. I failed to notice which bench he was affiliated with but he was holding our rebuilt pump like a proud new dad. Not too bad for a come-to-Jesus meeting and now I have a date with our Starboard Volvo to reinstall it. Hope began to fill my heart as I dinghied up the anchorage towards EV.

It only took the small book of curses to get the pump in with no leaks on the first try but the autopilot was the deal breaker. Alan showed up on time and we went over the installation and with the AP ram reinstalled, Marce put “Uncle Ray” through its paces with a complete dockside commissioning. Like the man said, A-OK!

After a short consult we decided a quick vacation from boat-related stress combined with a shakedown cruise was in order so it was off to anchorage 7 on the Moorings Charter map where they’ve numbered all of the hot spot anchorages for the charter crowd.  

Anchorage 7 features your classic Tongan private harbor and beach with a cave called “Swallows Cave” that you can dinghy right into. The fish took the day off, well there were three, but with that blue grotto light streaming in it was really beautiful just the same.  

 After two quiet nights we ran back up to Neiafu for a little pre-passage stress and sure enough MetBob said Sunday’s the day to head out for New Zealand and he’d prefer if we didn’t stop at Minerva Reef which everyone in the know is doing these days. We’ll catch that on our way back up to Tonga in the fall…you know, the Southern Hemisphere fall which is your spring but a day earlier and depending on where you are longitudinally reading this you’d simply add or s ubtract from UTC, minding that pesky daylight saving time thing…Never mind.

Look I gotta go. There’s fuel to order, last minute provisioning, picking up the official Escape Velocity T-Shirts we ordered at Tropical Tease, not to mention the big be-skirted lads at Customs, Immigration and the Port Captain who always have a curve or two and last but not least a good-bye party at the Aquarium Cafe. The party was for Mike, the outgoing owner, and Calvin, the new one, but we took the free food and drink as our send-off, too.  



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New Zealand bound!

We’ve dropped our mooring, sails are up and we’re motorsailing out of Tonga. Our passage outlook is a mixed bag but mostly good. We’ll send position reports as we can but other than that we’re off the grid for 10-12 days. If it takes longer, don’t worry. We may have slowed down to avoid bad weather, or we may stop at Minerva reef. See you on the other side!


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The view from the bar


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Now we wait

Ok Escapees, we’ve been head down trying to sort out repairs to our autopilot and starboard Volvo raw water pump without which we are going nowhere. The irony that both of these breakdowns waited until the end of this passage is not lost on us. It’s as though “now we wait” is part of some master plan. Tonga is not much to look at as you approach but once inside these protected waters Vava’u is truly beautiful. Conservative, church-going, big and friendly are the initial impressions ashore. Gone are the handsome, lithe bodies of French Polynesia.  

 Neiafu Customs just works a half day on Saturday but it’ll cost you about double so no worries there, Sunday you better not be caught working unless you are a preacher or in the choir, however this Monday is Constitution Day, a holiday, so it looks like we’ll have to wait till Tuesday to check in. Well I’m not going to stay on the boat until Tuesday and quickly found a likely happy hour at a water front bar and an ATM that dispenses something called TOP at the rate of two TOP for one USD. Even I can do that kind of math and later that evening we had a nice group of old friends at happy hour.  

 So it turns out that while the men of Tonga are quite conservative and religious, they are known to wear woven frond mats over long sleeve shirts and skirts. What would good old bible-thumping Mike Huckabee do about all of these goings on? I’d like to see that.  

George fixed me with a friendly smile as we sat down at Customs and Immigration. I thought he handled his heavy patterned grass mat with practiced ease, while just looking at his black long sleeved buttoned up shirt and trousers under the thick mat made me faint with the heat. 

“Where is your boat?” I pointed out at Escape Velocity at anchor 200 ft off the nasty looking Customs dock, smiled back at him and complimented him on his beautiful mat. After filling out a dozen or so forms George leaned over and in a conspiratorial whisper and said, “Jack, do you have any beer aboard?” Now that’s a loaded question. I endeavor to try to tell the truth when checking in, so I leaned forward and said that I believe I might be able to find a few aboard. George smiled and said, “Three, please.” I dinghied back with three cold ones in a paper bag, filled out a few more forms and left three Customs agents smiling at the dock tearing apart someone else’s boat. It was 10 am.

Back on the mooring ball I soon found that the raw water pump had ridden in its last rodeo. Salt water had sprayed everywhere and it was time to tear up EV myself. There is no one else to blame because that pump has had a righteous leak for months which has earned it a featured spot for replacement in New Zealand. With the kind assistance from fellow cruisers I dropped off the pump at Trouble in Paradise with a borrowed rebuild kit and dinghied over to the Boat Yard with the autopilot ram. Mañana for both.
In the meantime the chores for New Zealand, better known at happy hour as “the New Zealand list”, grows and grows. It occurs to me as we wait for these repair bills to land that when we were moving aboard EV I drank nothing but Black Seal rum and now I’m reduced to drinking a local rum, something called Dou-Dou, it tells a story doesn’t it? So it’s mañana. If you want me I’ll be in the bar…waiting.  



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Organ music

We arrived in Neiafu on October 31st, Halloween. Almost as soon as we got settled we were visited by the crews of Toucan, whom we know, and Florestan, whom we didn’t. Jerome and Alexandra are Belgian and partly sponsored by a Belgian charity called the Music Fund, that gives instruments and music instruction support to countries Belgium has been associated with in the past (Morrocco, Congo, Haiti, etc.) This young couple are very sweet, and are enthusiastic ambassadors for music education. 

I asked what instruments they play; piano for her, organ for him. “Ah,” I said. “I’m from Philadelphia — ” and before I had the next words out of my mouth Jerome’s face lit up, for Philadelphia is the home of the largest pipe organ in the world, something we Philadelphians are quite proud of. 

 The organ is in what used to be a very large, very posh department store called John Wannamaker right in Center City and every day at noon shoppers gather in the grand concourse to listen to the daily organ concerts. I don’t know of many people of my generation whose families didn’t make the annual pilgrimage to Wannamaker’s for the special Christmas concert.  

 The department store still exists but with the growth of suburban malls it’s a shadow of its former self. Still, the organ is revered and played and the daily concerts continue.   

 “I have played that organ!” said Jerome, and he said many modern pieces written for pipe organ can only sound good on that organ because of its unique range of stops. We told him we’d also been to Passau, Germany, home of the largest organ in Europe and he said it’s also the largest church organ in the world; the other bigger ones are not in churches. 

Jerome was very excited to meet other people who appreciate the pipe organ and when they went back to their boat he played a recording of the Wannamaker organ loud enough for the whole anchorage to hear, quite appropriate on Halloween. He came back to Escape Velocity while we were cooking dinner to play some videos for us of a few of their visits to music schools. They also carry repair parts on their boat and he had a short video he made of repairing a pipe organ in Martinique. They are doing good work and we found their mission inspiring. 

Jerome and Alexandra left the next day for an outer anchorage. If we’d come in a day later we’d have missed this serendipitous encounter. 

We live a pretty cool life.    


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The view from the back porch



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