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Rarotonga, Niue, Tonga

Late October 2002

It was a dark and stormy night.

Well, it really was, a few times during our 1,400 miles of passages this past month, which were quite a bit more boisterous than we’ve been used to. And we had a few more things – major things – break than we’ve had before. All in all, the three passages covered in this page took quite a bit out of us. But still, there were gorgeous tropical islands to visit and more great people to enjoy. So read on...

It’s getting late

We’ve become known as the “Tail-Enders.”

That’s what happens when you dawdle in beautiful French Polynesia, while most of your cruising friends have long since sailed west to the other islands. It was always our plan to stay as long as possible in the Tahiti area, but we did start to feel a little lonely after Paul & Michelle left! But now we really do have to keep moving to exit the area by the beginning of cyclone season in December. Even cruisers have deadlines! From mid-September to mid-October, we made three passages totaling 1,400 nautical miles in some boisterous sea conditions. They weren’t exactly the Passages From Hell, but as you’ll see we did have a few problems along the way. We are back to the kind of wear and tear on the boat and our bodies that we faced on the Marquesas passage.

Happily our New Zealand friends, Bjarne and Lise Elowsson, were with us from Bora Bora to Tonga. I’m not sure they realized what lively passages we would have, but they were real troopers and a big help throughout. All of the boats in our fleet keep asking, “Where’s all the gentle trade wind sailing that we’ve read about in all the cruising magazines?” We’ve had about three hours of it, total, but otherwise it has been 20-25 knot winds and big confused seas. I think the South Pacific Travel Bureau has been leading us on!

Passage to Rarotonga

On leaving the protected anchorage at Bora Bora on September 15th, right away we had 10-foot beam (from the side) seas and 20 knot winds. Uncomfortable and wet, but manageable. With a fair number of waves washing over the deck, we began to notice water dripping down the mast in our cabin. It seems the deck wedges that were keeping the mast from moving had come out and the seal had separated. The mast was working back and forth about an inch as we rolled in the waves, which is a bit scary to watch – “Will the mast stay in the boat?” – but Raven is strongly built so we really weren’t worried. Jan did an at-sea repair as best he could, and we continued to mop up for the rest of the three-day passage.

Losing the reacher

On our second day, with lighter winds we were flying our favorite sail, the big reacher, and making good speed. It was a beautiful day for a sail until suddenly there was a loud bang and the reacher – all 1,352 square feet of it – dropped into the sea. The halyard had chafed through in a new place, not previously reinforced by Mark the Rigger. A wet sail is a real bear to handle, especially one that big, dragging in the water behind the boat. There is always the worry that it will get caught in the propeller or go under the boat. Luckily, it was daylight and Jan was at the helm, so he slowed Raven down right away. All four of us were in harnesses, so we hooked on and in a half hour – which seemed like four hours – we got it aboard and no one was hurt. The sail was intact, but striped with black bottom paint, so it was another messy job to stuff it all into the forepeak, while Raven rolled mightily, to be dealt with later. Whew. We’re just sorry we don’t have photos to show you the foredeck full of acres of white sail with black stripes. Lise did her usual superb job of whipping up a gourmet lunch for us, and we all recovered.

A boat on a passage is not a pretty sight. Everyone has his stash of personal stuff close at hand – water bottles, packets of cookies, warm clothes, cool clothes, harnesses and tethers, sunscreen, hats, glasses, pillows and blankets for those few precious hours off watch. All of this junk stays out so you can find it in the dark when you don’t want to wake anyone who has finally managed to sleep despite the rocking and rolling, the noise of a creaking mast and boom, the slap of waves against the hull, the sails slamming if there is a wind change, and the occasional radio traffic. Our guests usually do pretty well in their aft cabin where there is less motion, but our forward cabin is often uncomfortable in the big South Pacific swells, which means sleeping au sauvage on the settees in the main salon. Doesn’t this make you want to rush right out and sign on for the next passage?

As you might imagine, this wasn’t our favorite passage of all time, and Bjarne and Lise had a tough start to their cruise aboard Raven. It wasn’t the wind that was the problem – it never went over 25 knots – but the seas coming from two or three different directions that made it bouncy.


Finally at 6 a.m. on September 19th we spotted the island of Rarotonga (not to be confused with the Kingdom of Tonga, which will come later). Rarotonga is in the Cook Islands, a protectorate of New Zealand. After five months of speaking French and paying huge prices for everything, it was an amazing treat to hear and speak English, and have what seemed like bargain prices. Best of all, everyone was really friendly.

The only discouraging part of our arrival was that the tiny harbor, in a U-shape, was one of the most uncomfortable we have seen. Sharing this little pocket with the sailboats were big rusty cargo ships and fishboats. Along one side, sailboats were moored Tahiti-style along a very dirty concrete quay with a big surge. (A Tahiti- or Med-moor is when you drop your anchor and back into a narrow spot between other boats and tie your stern lines to the quay.) Several other boats were also anchored in the narrow harbor, and that’s where we put Raven. The problem with being at anchor is that every time a ship comes into the harbor, you must raise anchor, leave the harbor until the ship docks, then go back in and anchor again. Did I mention that this was a difficult harbor?

After a couple of days, we had our chance at the quay. It was all very rolly and the tight-packed boats created a macramé of fenders and lines going to neighbors and to the quay. Getting ashore still wasn’t easy, either, as you had to use your dinghy to get to a slippery ladder, and leap onto it in the three-foot surge. Sturdy sandals and quick-dry clothes were essential. Fun! Ah, the prices we pay for Paradise.

The weather was rainy when we arrived, perfect for reacher cleaning. Bjarne and the two of us spent a few hours in a downpour with that massive sail on deck, with scrub brushes and soap in hand. Thank goodness we were all able to laugh about it –“ wet t-shirt contests,” “Welcome to the Tropics,” “Are we having fun yet?” etc. All the while, Lise cleaned passage mess out of Raven’s interior, and kept us fed and warmed with food and hot drinks. We’re proud to say we got 99% of the bottom paint off the sail, rinsed the salt out in fresh rain water, and dried it on deck over the next few days, before rolling it up and stowing it away until New Zealand. We miss the speed that sail offers, but aren’t willing to risk damaging it. We must find a permanent fix for that chafe problem when we get to New Zealand.

Rarotonga is thoroughly Polynesian and has the usual tribal-missionary-tourism history. It has a close connection with New Zealand, uses kiwi dollars as currency, and the locals speak English with a distinctly Auckland lilt. That’s probably because more Cook Islanders live in Auckland than in the Cooks!

The island is very rural and beautiful, with volcanic central peaks circled by an ancient inland road that goes by fields of taro, tomatoes, bananas, and papayas. A daily market right next to the harbor sold much of the produce of these farms. We even got fresh herbs. The big market day, Saturday, saw the arrival of many locals to socialize, have lunch, and buy flower crowns and vegetables. It was really pleasant.

We spent one day at the cultural center, learning how to weave pandanus, harvest coconuts, use plants in Rarotongan medicine, how to play the drums, and how to dance. Jan was an expert at the latter skills. He vows to learn the haka when we reach New Zealand.

The big surprise of the island was the number of very good restaurants. We had expected good food in French Polynesia, which we never really found. It’s got French influence, so the food must be good, right? Guess not. In out of the way Rarotonga, there were good spots galore. Most of them had locations looking out over the water, and the prices were a fraction of those in Tahiti. It was a radically nice change from the pricey brand of tourism on Bora Bora.


After a two-day wait for the winds to calm just a bit, we left Rarotonga at midday on September 27th for our three day passage to Niue ("NOO-ay"), another tiny Pacific island nation you’ve never heard of. It was an uneventful trip other than more rolly seas and good winds. On the final day we had a Close Encounter of the Ship Kind. We had just spotted Niue when we saw a fast moving ship eighteen miles out on the radar, on a course converging with us, so we took the safety measure of calling on the radio to make sure they saw us. It was a container ship hustling to Auckland at 21 knots and would have T-boned us if we hadn’t spoken up. You can never count on ships having anyone paying attention to the radar, let alone watching for other boats. As it was, the watch officer very politely changed course to avoid us, much to our relief.

We anchored in Niue in what is known as an open roadstead. Basically, that means that you are anchored on a 90-foot-deep coral shelf in the middle of the Pacific, and if any weather systems come through, you make tracks to get the heck out. The Niue Yacht Club has about 20 moorings (anchors with ropes and little floats you can tie up to) they rent out for nominal sums. The club is one in name only – no clubhouse or docks – but lots of friendly, helpful members. We joined, got our official membership cards and T-shirts, and are looking forward to receiving our annual newsletters!

Niue is an island untouched by tourism. In fact, the week we were there, the only flight had been cancelled. People come there saying they’ll stay for a few days and end up staying for weeks. It’s that kind of a place. We yachties, as we are known in this part of the world, plus a few divers, are the only tourists. We all stood out like sore thumbs, but were made to feel very welcome everywhere from the cheery greeting of the harbormaster on the radio (“Welcome to the Rock of the Pacific!”) to the smiling people in the shops.

The locals were very hopeful about a new flight that might bring in some tourism and money to a very poor island. The population of 1,500 people is quickly dropping as more and more people leave for New Zealand to find work. In fact, almost ten times as many Niueans live in New Zealand as live on the island itself. The island was full of abandoned houses and villages. The main village, Alofi, consists of a bank, a laundry, a grocery store made up of several shipping containers strung together, a church and a couple of shops, half of them empty. That’s the capital.

Going ashore from this open roadstead was a real challenge. There was no place to dock or even tie up a dinghy, but they have a well-honed system involving a big electric crane. You snag your dinghy’s lifting harness onto the crane’s huge hook, scramble up the step, then push the button to haul the dinghy up onto the concrete quay. Then you park the dinghy until your return.

Niue is a makatea, a coral atoll raised up long ago by geologic forces. Eons ago, it was like the Tuamotu atolls, but then the whole island rose 50 or 100 feet out of the water. So now the island is riddled with ancient, razor-sharp coral outcroppings and caves. We had some wonderful hikes and sea walks with very dramatic scenery. We walked on reefs in ankle deep water where ladies were fishing for oysters and octopus. We went on woodsy walks that led to sea arches and blowholes. We squeezed through several caves to get to the crystal clear pools on the other side. The best adventure of all, called Togo Chasm, took us through the woods into a landscape of coral pinnacles, then down a steep ladder to a tiny sandy-bottomed canyon where storms had thrown coconuts, which sprouted and formed a little glen inside high coral rock walls. The waves crash steadily through the eroded rocks.

On a search for limes, we learned they were only available at the prison. Hmmm. Always game for an adventure, Bjarne (who was used to driving on the wrong side of the road, did a wonderful job as our driver in Niue and Rarotonga) drove the four of us out there in our rented van. At the gate of the deserted-looking little prison building Jan called out to see if there was anyone around. A head peeked out between the bars of one cell, then a man opened the cell door (!), picked up a large kitchen knife (!!), and walked over to us (!!!), smiling and asking if we wanted some vegetables. Simte, as we learned his name was, definitely had our attention! Jan, feeling nervously chatty, asked him if he was the warden. “No,” he said, ”I’m the prisoner.” We learned later that he had murdered his mother-in-law (with a knife!!) and was sentenced to eleven years. The other prisoner was the warden, who had killed another prisoner. (Confused yet?) And neither one was locked in. Where would they go on an island???? They just spent their days tending separate, beautiful vegetable gardens and biding their time. Yes, Simte did sell us some nice limes and string beans.

The van Bjarne drove so well, by the way, was infested with cockroaches. Welcome to the tropical Third World. By now, we take this sort of thing in stride. No sense complaining to the rental company – Avis it ain’t. An immediate stop at the store produced a can of Raid; we sprayed most of it in the van, sealed it up, and went to lunch. Every night we’d spray more Raid inside and were greeted the next morning with a dozen critters with their legs up in the air. No more roach problem.

Niue has some of the best diving in the world because of the water's extraordinary clarity. The island has no streams and thus no silt to cloud the 100'+ underwater views. One day, Jan made two dives with the excellent local dive shop and loved swimming through underwater caves and seeing the highly venomous sea snakes close up (allegedly, the snakes have mouths far too small to bite a human. Ha!).  There's just no accounting for taste, is there?

In Niue, we finally met up with Donal Botkin, with whom Jan had worked twenty years ago. He had sailed across the Pacific to New Zealand and was on his way back to California. We had been emailing each other and finally ended up in the same anchorage. We had a good reunion with him and lots of other cruisers at a barbecue given for the yachties by the Niue Yacht Club.

We didn’t get to stay as long as we wanted in Niue because we got reports of some serious weather coming through. There was no place to hide for weather protection, so we decided to leave for Tonga while the leaving was good.


The passage was fast, 250 miles in only 28 hours, but it was one of our most boisterous. For the first 12 hours, we averaged a blazing 10 knots in 20 to 25 knot winds, with only the jib and reefed mainsail. It was exciting, but then the winds got up to the high 20’s, and even 30 knots, and our speeds were going higher.

Then it happened. During the night, when we were hitting even faster speeds, there was a load bang. Shades of the reacher going over the side on the way to Rarotonga. We had broken the huge bolt that holds the hydraulic vang (a critical item that keeps the boom from flying out of control) to the mast. Jan and the long-suffering Bjarne had to wake up and go forward to rig a temporary repair. They had to put all three reefs in the main – a first – to take some of the pressure off of the vang. The two guys said they were amazingly warm and comfortable during the half hour it took to get all this done . . . until a big wave broke over them. That’s when Signe, still in the pilothouse, saw the GPS speed indicator hit 14.1 knots, a new Raven record. After that, they got that last reef in double-quick! Sleeping was very marginal that night, but we still had a record passage.

We were very glad to turn the corner into the lee of Vava’u Island, Tonga. On the way into Neiafu Harbor, we had a royal greeting from our friends on C’est La Vie, Avventura, and North Road, who had been there for about a month. They were in one of the many anchorages outside of town. We had to go on into Neiafu to officially check in with customs and immigration. Our friends on Final Straw had snagged a mooring for us, so we didn’t have to risk anchoring while tired, in a deep and crowded harbor. It pays to have friends who know the ropes.

We were so happy to see all our friends, and they were so glad to see the Big Boat, that we had the first of several parties aboard Raven. The first night it was a roast lamb dinner. The second night we had a cocktail party with a sing-a-long. The third night a dozen of us had a championship game of Cranium, which is probably the perfect cruiser game.

Sadly, Bjarne and Lise had to leave us to fly back to Auckland. They said they had to finish paving their driveway before we arrived to see their new house. We left to explore the outer anchorages and meet up with even more friends. All the anchorages go by numbers here according to the charts created by The Moorings boat charter company. It sounds a little odd on the radio until you learn the jargon: “We’re in #16 for the snorkeling today, but tomorrow we’ll move to #10 for the Tongan feast.”

We moved over to #13, Hunga, which is an ancient volcano that you can only enter and exit at high tide, through a dramatic, narrow, and scary little passage. It was quite a beautiful bay and very calm, even though the wind was howling outside the caldera. C’est La Vie met a local fellow in a dugout canoe who offered to take us around his village, which we did the next day.

I’ve seen lots of very Third World places on this adventure, but this was probably the poorest village I’ve seen. They had also had some severe damage in the January 2002 cyclone, so things were pretty sad. The houses were very ramshackle, and the children were covered in sores, rags and dirt. Pigs, chickens and dogs were running wild everywhere. But our guide, Vaka, proudly showed us his “plantation” of papayas, bananas, taro, manioc and kava. He has enough to support his family on what he can grow. Typically for a Tongan village of 200 people there are five churches. It’s a very conservative island group and strongly governed by church beliefs. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is open on Sundays. You aren’t supposed to swim or work on Sunday either. And they would really prefer that you dress conservatively too. Both the women and men here, when dressed “properly,” wear long dark skirts and long sleeves. In town both sexes also wear wraps of woven basketry that cover their waists and hips.

While in Hunga, Jan had the watermaker running one day when it started smoking, which is not a good thing for a big electric motor to do. Happily, a Kiwi cruiser – a former boatbuilder – came over and displayed his amazing skills with boat systems. In short order, he cleaned the motor brushes, had the motor going again, and refused to take payment for his efforts. Jan gave him some tools and profuse thanks for the lesson in how to resurrect electric motors. The Cruising Community continues to amaze us with its generosity and sharing of expertise.

Moving on again

Many of our friends are starting to disperse south to the Ha’apai group of islands, then to Tongatapu, the capital island of Tonga, to prepare for the Big Leap to New Zealand. No one is looking forward to that passage, so the gatherings are filled with apprehensive talk about the best route, the weather, GPS waypoints, radio networks, etc. It is all a bit unnerving and we are trying to stay out of it as long as possible. Ken and Cathy of Felicity, who did the same passage last year and have spent the year in Auckland, are coming to Tongatapu on November 2nd to do the passage with us. And we’re certainly looking forward to having them.

So after November 2nd, any spare prayers, good thoughts, angels, etc. will be gratefully accepted.

Warm regards from Signe & Jan

PS from Signe: For those of you thought I was going to use the “747 method” to get to New Zealand: I cut myself the same deal as the Marquesas passage: I’ll do all the cooking if I don’t have to stand night watch. We all think we have the best deal!

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This page was last updated on 04/13/04.

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