20 57S 175 05W 25 Oct 05

As she heads aft for a nap after completing her 5.00 to 8.00am watch
Janet: We should have enough meat for the passage. Shall we take the line in?
David: I'll finish my breakfast and then bring it in.
David: Too late!
The fish knew it was the last chance to bite the plastic lure which we have been towing for 30 hrs. It was a small yellow fin - the nicest of the tunas. Harmonica is back in the deep ocean.....well 10km deep in the Tonga Trench to the east; but round us are Minerva Reefs, Pelorus Reef, Ata Island, and various sea mounts on the charts sticking out of the ocean floor.

3 days ago, we made an overnight sail from the Ha'apai Group of Tongan islands south to the national capital, Nukualofa, stern-tied to the outer mole of the harbour. The books warned us that Nukualofa is a city with traffic jams, and noise, but that is only true by the standards of the Tongan islands further north. There was lots of paperwork, but all the officials were patient and courteous with us "Palangis" (ie. westerners). We completed paperwork at immigration/port authority/customs, bought diesel, shopped for food, had a nice supper at 3.30pm in a western-style cafe, then sailed out past the reefs just before sunset. Phew!

By 5.00pm, we dropped the stern lines and Jan gave us hard forward to clear the boat beside us in the cross-wind while Dave pulled up the anchor and waved off the school boys who were swimming in the harbour. It was a busy but cheerful way to leave the country we had lived in for a month. We had casually thought that the entrance to Tonga's main port should be straight forward, but it is surrounded by a few miles of reefs, sand bars, and coral heads, and several of the charted buoys were missing, so leaving before sunset was a must.

Fish hooks for bananas and lone caretakers on tropical islands, whales, dolphins, reef sharks, and clear waters, Peace Corps volunteers, and neat, simple, friendly villages, and singing at a kava-drinking party: Our memories of the Ha'apai group of Central Tonga. Ha'apai is about 60 islands. 17 are inhabited and we stopped at 8. Only 2 rise above 100 feet from the sea.

It is a single night's sailing from the rockier Vavau Group in the north, and half way down, we realized that it was Friday night so we might not be able to check in before Monday. So on Saturday morning, we dropped anchor by the break in the reef of Ofalanga Island and spent the day walking round it. The volcano of Tofua was gently smoking 20 miles to the west. The only sign of people was the lean-to fisherman's shelter on the beach made of woven pandanus leaves. On Sunday, we drifted east to Foa, and walked up the road to the harmonies of church singing.

Many officials wore the traditional Tongan tupenu or men's skirt. The tupenu is also school uniform for secondary schools. They are good-looking people and fortunately seem to like having their photographs taken.

One family we met gave us bananas and papaya. She was the assistant principle of the island school and he was a fisherman. After several visits with them they came out with their 10yr old daughter to visit Harmonica.....their first visit to a sailing boat. We Were able to give some pens for the school, and fish hooks for him.

The fishermen will sometimes go miles offshore in small boats with a single outboard engine and we also gave him some spare spark plugs which made his engine sound much healthier. Twice, fishermen asked for the plastic squid which we use as lures for deep-sea fish, and were interested in our home-made versions using coloured spinnaker cloth. They are skilled fishermen. Locals also find octopus and lobster in abundance, but our attempts were less successful: when Dave and Russ (another Canadian cruiser) went lobster-hunting, the instructions were simple - go out on the reef after dark at high tide when the dinghy can cross it and they'll come to the light so that you just pick them up. First we missed the edge of the reef and went planing off into water 1/2km deep. Then we criss-crossed all sorts of reef and snorkeled in the dark but could not find a single lobster!

We were often glad of the faster dinghy which we had traded for in Ecuador. Our day-time snorkeling was more successful. Ha'apai is a destination for scuba divers but being hard to get to, very few make it here. We could often hear whales in the water when we dived but saw few. We saw several spinner dolphins which twist vigorously as they jump, and we were accompanied by a pod under the bow. There is supposed to be an underwater cave of warm water by Ofolanga and we found an enormous spider conch (too big for Janet to take!) nearby, but we did not find the entrance. Once Russ and Dave drift-swam, with the dinghy behind, in the current in the pass in the barrier reef between Uoleva and Uiha. The corals were fantastic. The clearest water we found was probably off the "resort island" of Telekivavau.

The term Resort Island could be misleading since the last guest checked out nearly 6 months earlier. A caretaker lives there on his own and takes care of the lovely building and keeps the grass lawn cut. He (Steve from Hawaii) seemed glad to have company for the 2 days we spent anchored inside his reef and twice he joined us for supper on board Harmonica, and we joined him for sunset drinks on the north beach where we could watch the large flying foxes (fruit bats) desperately flapping from one island to the next, and the frigate birds harassing boobies for food.

The only paved road we saw in the Ha'apai runs about 8 miles from the "Sandy Beach Resort" on Foa, across the causeway to Lifuka and south to the smart hospital. The "Sandy Beach" was the only other palangi (meaning ex-patriot) resort that we saw. Its German owner lives there and runs it for the small number of European and American guests. The 3 towns on the road become progressively bigger, terminating in Pangai, the administrative capital. Pangai boasts many churches, a small group of administration buildings, the only airport and harbour in the island group, about 6 schools (giving the impression of some highly educated children), mobile telephone & internet centre. Most significant for us - it also has the "Mariner's Cafe" where at the 5 small tables, the few cruisers, tourists, and American Peace Corps workers would eat burgers fish or chicken stir-fry over an evening beer and exchange gossip. Eating out with different company becomes a luxury after weeks of eating on board.

Ha'apai seems an ideal place for a young volunteer in the Peace Corps. The ones we talked to mostly taught in schools. Although we sail between islands at will, once on their islands, these volunteers may not meet other Palangi for weeks or months. When Andrew came on board in Oua, he sat down and announced how much we underrate furniture and chairs. He amused us with tales of the Tongan customs of sharing - how he would be cooking his breakfast when adults or school children would wander into his hut, ask what he was cooking and expect to share it. The opposite is also true, he has organized a "Youth Group" which has grown a patch of western vegetables including lettuce which they shared with us to our great delight, and also made a delicious drink of coconut, and mango. Another time, we chatted to a woman as we walked through the village in Oua, and she filled a shopping bag with fresh green mango which Janet later made into chutney.

Andrew also invited us to a Kava drinking party (us means Russ and Dave since the custom is that only men drink Kava). We hastily read all we could about this Polynesian narcotic and decided that the occasion should not be missed. The men sit cross-legged on the floor around a traditional wooden bowl in which the Kava is mixed. Then it is served by one individual who ladles the drink into smaller bowls which are passed around to the head of the circle - you guessed right, that was us. Any dregs are thrown out and more bowls are filled and passed round. My strongest memory will be of the singing and guitar playing, but we missed a lot by not speaking Tongan.

On Uiha, we sought out the Esi-o-Ma'afu Homestay which was mentioned in our "Lonely Planet" guide. The collection of huts by the beach was hard to distinguish from other homes in the village. We asked if they could prepare a Tongan Feast for us, and returned the next day at 5.30. Dinner was actually quite late because the young pig, which was to be roast whole, decided to be late returning from the bush that day and its owner dropped it down beside the umu, or hole-in-the-ground-oven, after we arrived. There was much shelling of clams, splitting of lobster, and boiling of vegetables, as we were joined by Mike & Alex from a British cruising boat Sanuk (all the way to Tonga to meet a man worked for the same seismic company as Dave in the 1970's). Eventually the snoring occupant of the hammock was rolled away, and we were seated as a sumptuous spread of foods was laid out. We hardly made a dent in the quantity of food and rolled away ourselves after a true feast.

Since starting this letter, we spent 3 days close reaching in strong to gale force winds and steep seas. We made great speed, but at the cost of Harmonica's dryness and our energy levels. The wind and seas have now calmed down but we are looking forward to landfall in Opua, New Zealand and a chance to wash the salt off everything. Harmonica has many deck leaks to attend to, and must also be cleared of ants and cockroaches which have infested us during the summer (just in case you think that paradise is perfect). We'll have 6 months to look after these while it is cyclone season in the tropics.

Best wishes to you all from

Jan, Dave & Harmonica