Shark attack and lady boys!

22nd November 2012
We’re dashing through the night, Sea Rover purring along at speeds of 7 – 8 knots in a F5 as we leave the tropics after six months and head south to our second home, New Zealand. Sad to think this will be our last visit as next year we will start the journey home. After all we need to be sure we’re back in time for the Rugby World Cup in 2015.
We had hoped to visit Minerva Reef again, although doubt we could ever have repeated the very special experience we had in 2009 of attending a wedding on this remote reef in the South Pacific! However, plans are meant to be changed and the weather changed ours.

We’d got back to Nuku’alofa on Tongatapu the most southerly of Tonga’s main islands and thought there may have been a weather window appearing. Well I did but Mike was of a rather different opinion having seen some scruffy stuff forming over Fiji. I was sure that a) its course would miss our route b) we could handle a bit of weather and c) we would probably out run it anyway. Fortunately Mike prevailed as we sat and watched the GRIBs (weather files we use) show the low system form, deepen and head our way. Not just the route we were intending to take but also for Tongatapu itself and as a weekly email from a “weather guru” called Bob McDavitt said ‘.. a tropical low is likely to form near Fiji and then deepen rapidly and move southeast across southern Tonga/Minerva possibly with gales …. Avoid. It might earn itself a name as cyclone number 1 for the South Pacific season 2012/13’. So the right call there. We also decided that anchoring inside the small harbour at Tongatapu didn’t sound like a great option so we headed 170 miles north back to Neiafu in the Vava’u group and a sheltered inlet that Antonio Mourelle called Port Refuge.
As it turned out Tongatapu had gale force winds and gusts which one cruiser said reached 70 knots, whilst we sat out the blow safe on a four ton mooring and watched the American election (on CNN and with David Dimbleby on BBC World!) in a wonderful restaurant, Ovava. Rather glad we didn’t discover this restaurant on our first visit here as our waistlines, wallets and livers would have suffered! It serves the best food in Tonga and is such a welcoming, convivial place created by Laurence an ex-butler, now chef and restaurant owner with an avowedly Basil Fawlty streak to him. If you ever get there you must go. On a more sombre note we heard of a yacht that had braved the storm, and was apparently rolled through 360° and needed rescuing in 9m seas. Another cruising yacht, a cargo ship and the NZ warship Otago all battled to their assistance, making us realise that making the wrong decision can not only endanger yourself but others called upon to come to your aid. Happily the couple have been rescued and are as well as can be expected, although the yacht has been lost.

A world away, we enjoyed our most memorable times in Neiafu on our first visit there in September.

Wednesday night at Tongan Bob’s is Fakaleiti Night, fakaleitei being the ‘lady boys’ we’ve seen across our travels in the Pacific. Historically when a family didn’t have girls to help with the women’s work the youngest boy was brought up as a girl and transvestite men are very much an accepted part of society. Today fakaleitei (literally ‘the way of the lady’) also encompasses gay and transgender men, all of them brilliant performers and the shows not to be missed.

Like us, you may find your eyes deceiving you and going more than once to see the men perform!

Late one afternoon a shark attack, a Mayday and a glimpse of the cruising community at its best. We were sailing within sight of the boat that raised the Mayday but could only listen as they appealed for medical help in Neiafu. Mike, the owner of the Aquarium Café used by most yachts, responded impressively along with the helpful owner of another cruisers’ haunt. The ambulance was mobilised, the doctor at the hospital briefed and the local pharmacist stood by to supply drugs. The café owner then drove to a prearranged landing place for the launch bringing the victim ashore, transferred her to his car and started to drive to the hospital meeting with the ambulance en route.
All this unfolded on Channel 26, the cruisers net, and everyone not involved just shut up, for once! The only interjections were helpful such as seeing if the cruiser’s blood group could be established – it was and then a call to yachts to see if anyone of the same group would be prepared to donate blood should it be required. There were offers but the only ones with the same blood group had noticed the sun beneath the yard arm and a couple of drinks ruled them ineligible. Then the offer of type O blood (the universal donor group) and despite the fact it was 10:00pm when she was called upon, the woman went to give blood, leaving her husband aboard looking after their six year old.
Little doubt many had the same questions: what had happened … and selfishly, could it happen to us? It appears that Kylie, the victim, had been unlucky and perhaps unwise. She had been swimming behind a kayak in deep blue water, late in the afternoon. She was attacked from behind by a large shark, not a reef shark, and one thought is that perhaps this shark had mistaken the splashing of her large free diving flippers for a whale calf in distress, creatures they are known to attack opportunistically.
We knew the victim and were relieved to hear that the immediate medical help was good and that she’d escaped without damage to major blood vessels or muscle tissue. Kylie was medevac-ed to Australia two days later and we were left reflecting on how the cruising community also includes those ashore whose lives are bound up in ours.
It certainly made that bit more wary when we returned to the Ha’apai and the whales. Seems they arrived early this year and it was clear that many had already started their migration back to Antarctica. Happily not all had gone and we had another wonderful experience off Nukupule when we again saw whales coming through the bay swam out from the boat and were rewarded with another visit from a mother and calf. At first the calf by itself as the mother appeared to ‘sit’ on the sea bed whilst it swan with us and then with both of them swimming alongside. Each time we have been in the water with them has felt very special and we have come away only wanting to do more.

Being back in the Ha’apai we met up again with local headmaster Pita and his wife Kauniata and were invited to the annual Ladies’ Day at their church – a chance for me to wear the ta’ovala (fine mat) that Kauniata had given me.

As well as celebrating the role of women in the church with a service and feast, Ladies Day is the occasion when the annual tithes (gifts) are collected. They attend one of the several churches on this island, many brands are represented here, and what astounded us was that the small congregation raised over 9,000 pa’anga (roughly equivalent to £3,500) whereas a fund raiser for the public library and educational funds to provide scholarships for secondary school in the much larger and more affluent Neiafu had only raised 8,000 pa’anga. The scholarships are much needed as secondary education is not free and not all families can afford the fees. It was explained that the funds raised through the church tithes go the central funds and then the village applies for the money they need for the upkeep of the church buildings, pastor’s house is the largest and poshest in the village, the pastor’s salary and other church and community activities. We understand that raising this amount had entailed some families borrowing money from the bank, leaving them short as the debt is repaid. You can’t help thinking that an educated population might do more for the future of Tonga in the long run.

Sadly our time in the tropics was coming to an end and so, like the whales we’re heading south before the cyclone season afflicts the tropical islands we’ve enjoyed. On this passage we encountered something we’d never met before – streams of floating pumice the product of an underwater volcano kicking off – fortunately not underneath us, but judging by the extraordinary quantity of the stuff and the length of time we saw it (best part of several days at odd intervals) something, somewhere was having a right old strop. We even found small pebbles of pumice washed by waves up onto our teak deck.

Passages to New Zealand have a reputation for rough weather but if anything we’ve wanted more wind and spent too much time motoring through calms. The only compensation, the glorious reflections on the calm seas, more delightful moments in an enviable year stuffed with them!

Enjoy more of Mike's watercolours

See more of our photos of Tonga

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