Saturday, September 27, 2014

Adapting to boat life

When I signed up to live on a boat in Tonga, I really didn't know what I was getting into. In fact, I was just delighted by the prospect of sailing around tropical paradise with a couple friends from Seattle who were sailing across the Pacific. I figured Josh and I would get a taste of home and be able to see places we'd never lay eyes on otherwise. I looked forward to snorkeling, reading books on my iPad and swapping stories of paragliding and sailing adventures with folks who were already my friends. (Remember, I'm an introvert so making new friends in foreign places is tough for me.)

What I didn't expect was all the complications and new norms that are part of life at sea. For those of you who've sailed or lived on a boat or even lived off the grid, these may come as no surprise. But to me, sailing was a whole new world, different from what I've experienced even on long trips in the backcountry or traveling in third-world countries.


#1 Fresh Water is a Big Deal

Before we left Seattle, captain Jeff had a part sent to us for the onboard watermaker which needed repair. When Josh and I arrived, part in hand, we all discovered the manufacturer had sent the wrong thing. This meant we'd have to go on producing water 10 gallons at a time, in 30 minute intervals so as not to overheat the pump.

This homemade water is our lifeline in a sea of salt water. We rely on it to stay hydrated, to wash our dishes and to shower or rinse after snorkeling. We try to use as little water as possible, but it's always gone too quickly. And, as I learned, you can only make fresh water where the ocean is clean -- that is, when you're not in port or anchored in a silty bay. In Neiafu, the capital of Vavu'a, we went nearly 6 days without making water and many of those without taking a shower to conserve water. (Yes, we smelled.)

Even when we can make water multiple times a day, we still conserve water, turning off the shower between rinses or showering on the swim deck, rinsing in the ocean for all but the last rinse. There is even a foot pump to operate the bathroom and kitchen sinks, which we use to reduce the water flow and thus wasted water. I consider myself an environmentalist, but this is the first time that I have really conserved water in earnest and, man, is it work!

#2 The Cold Air is Always Escaping

The sailboat's kitchen is nicely appointed with a deep, chest-like refrigerator and freezer. This is where we store our prized items like bacon, frozen meats, diet coke, beer, and fresh veggies. Every time we get into the frig or freezer, a little coldness escapes and must be regenerated by the boat. That means running the generator, creating noise and sucking down the fuel reserves. Josh and I have gotten faster at finding things in the frig and freezer, and have learned to get everything we need out at once. We let the doors slam shut, yanking our fingers out just in the nick of time, but still the cold air escapes.

We monitor the temperature of the frig and freezer on a display mounted on the wall above them. When the freezer gets to 11 degrees, we celebrate. On the day I help Cheri with the monthly defrosting of the frig and freezer, I notice the frig temperature reads a balmy 102 degrees. No wonder I am sweating as I run the hair dryer to melt the ice that has built up inside. It takes hours for the frig to return to its normal temperature in the 50 degree range.


#3 The Loo has Limits

All this getting into the frig and freezer results in delicious meals, which we devour along with plenty of water and the nightly cocktail. Eating of course leads to pooping, which is another problem. The toilet tank gets full. Everyday. We have been warned that we don't want it to overflow. There's no way to check how full it is, so we just try to dump it daily. The boys pee overboard. I offered, but was told that's unnecessary. We try to use the bathrooms in town as often as possible. I hold it as long as I can, so as to avoid unnecessary flushes which seem to use a lot of water (and thus, space in the tiny holding tank). In sum, the toilet tank is a daily topic of conversation as the captain debates when and where to dump it and we all try to stay upwind during that dirty trick.

#4 All Anchorages are not Created Equal

Most of the time we are anchoring the boat. The two exceptions so far have been in Neiafu and once, for a few hours, off Euaiki Island when we tied up to a resort's mooring buoy. Early on, Jeff appointed me "cruise coordinator" tasked with selecting the islands we would visit and in what order. I was excited about this job, and surprised to learn that just because it's in the book, doesn't mean we can anchor there. Some key guidelines I've developed include:

  • No anchoring in coral as it makes it hard to get unanchored and it damages the reef.
  • No anchoring if the ocean floor drops off steeply as it can be near impossible to find the perfect spot.
  • No anchoring in very shallow water (less than 15') or deep water (more than 65').
  • Avoid anchoring with reefs nearby as the boat may swing on its anchor at night.

The best anchorages are sheltered from the prevailing wind direction, have sandy bottoms about 20-30' deep that gently slope and lack coral heads or reefs to get tangled up on. Oh, and if they can be next to an island with soft, white sand beaches and colorful coral reefs teeming with fish, all the better! Not surprisingly, this is a tall order and one we rarely attain despite our best intentions.


#5 Wind is your Foe and your Friend

On a sailboat, the goal is to sail from place to place. (Duh.) But where you go, when you leave and how quickly you get to your destination all depend on the wind--it's direction, speed and regularly. There are wind forecasts and, like in paragliding, they are rarely 100% accurate. One yachtie we met claimed she could give a more accurate forecast just by adding 50% to whatever the weatherman estimated.

Wind direction and wind speed are not static. They change over the course of the day and even from minute to minute. When the sailboat is on autopilot, it turns to keep the wind at the proper angle to the boat. So when the wind switches, our heading switches. This makes sailing to a predetermined destination a little tricky. It also makes it hard to know when you're going to arrive. On minute you are going 5 knots in wind that is blowing 15, the next minute the wind jumps to 20 knots and you're going faster, or worse: the wind drops off and you're barely making 1 knot of forward progress.

When the wind cuts out or blows from the wrong direction, it is tempting to motor. And sometimes that's the only option. But, like I mentioned earlier, fuel is precious and we don't want to waste it when we could be sailing instead. So, we try to time our sailings and pick our destinations to match the wind direction. And when the sailing gets tough, sometimes I get seasick and then take a nap.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Seasickness gone, but not forgotten

After more than two weeks aboard the S/V Grasshopper, I discovered that I still get seasick. I had been hoping that all my time on boats in the last month had cured me of that affliction, but no such luck.

As we motored our way upwind towards Maninita Island, we encountered the roughest seas in Tonga thus far. That's not to say they were "heavy" in sailing terms. Jeff was inclined to call them "moderate" seas at best. But they did sport a 4-5 foot swell and rocked the boat from side to side, and front to back as we plowed along at 5.5 knots.

Within a half hour or so, I was feeling off. Then the nausea set in and I watched the horizon, donned my acupressure seabands, chewed up an anti-nausea pill and chomped away on ginger gum, hoping those four strategies would do the trick. They didn't. In fact, it got worse before it got better.

From the back of the boat, I sat with the wind whipping my face and watched the slate blue water rise and fall in big swells. White foam danced across waves that bombarded us from all directions and the light gray sky bounced up and down. I clutched a big blue bucket in my lap and gripped the railing, praying that I wouldn't need it.

My blue buddy

Meanwhile Jeff and Josh surveyed our surroundings and reread the description of Maninita's anchorage. "Untenable in moderate to rough seas," it said. Time for a change of plans. Normally, I would lead the charge in finding a new destination, but I sat this round out while the boys scurried to find an alternative.

Success! With a new heading in place, we set sail for Fonua'One'One Island to the west of our original destination. I continued to uurp along, eyes to the horizon, bucket in my lap. As we neared the island, the seas calmed and we were greeted by turquoise and light green waters which marked a sandy bottom, surrounded by brown coral reefs and breakers. We set an anchorage in the sand and snapped some pictures of the lovely view. My stomach finally settled down, just in time for lunch and a snorkel.

Fonoa'One'One, our day stop before leaving the Vava'u group.

I wish this was the place where I could write, "the end" and happily wrap up this story, but that would be a lie. In the late afternoon, we pulled up anchor and set sail for the next group of Tongan islands, the Ha'apai group. More than 50 nautical miles to the south, this would be our longest sail yet. An all-night endeavor. In rough seas.

As we headed south, the ocean produced swells 10 feet tall and my stomach grew angry again. I watched the horizon and assumed a new position, recommended by Captain Jeff--standing on the bench in the cockpit looking forward across the top of the dodger with the breeze blowing in my face. From this vantage point, my seasickness receded and I started to feel better.

The anti-nausea pills had made me sleepy so I headed down below to take a nap. Within an hour, the salvia in my mouth grew warm and I knew I was going to puke soon. I ran towards the cockpit while the boat swayed haphazardly from side to side, hollering for the blue bucket. I burst into the fresh air, flung myself towards the rail and grabbed the bucket from Josh, puking into it in great heaves.

Afterward, Jeff emptied and rinsed my bucket in the wake behind the boat and handed it back to me for the next go. I swapped seats, this time taking up position on the leeward side of the boat and wrapping myself around the bucket like it was a life preserver. The ocean continue to churn and my tummy grumbled along. That evening, in the dark, I would vomit two more times and, after each time, Jeff -- the self-appointed chief bucketeer -- would rinse away my foulness in the deep rollicking sea.

Eventually I grew so tired, I could barely hold myself upright so I climbed down to our cabin and felt into a fitful sleep while the rest of the crew took turns as the night watch.

In the morning I awoke to calm waters as we motored into a new anchorage at Ha'ano Island in the Ha'apai group. I heaved a sigh of relief and crossed my fingers that I would be done with seasickness for the rest of our trip.*

*As I get ready to post this a couple weeks later, now that we have internet again, I'm sorry to say that was not the last of my seasickness. I am officially a person who gets seasick, regardless of medication.


Friday, September 5, 2014

Paradise or Pirate Port?

It's so hard to know if you're getting taken advantage of when in a foreign land. The usual clues, like misinformation or a weird smile, can often be chalked up to language and cultural barriers. When I find myself in situations like these, I prefer to give the locals the benefit of the doubt, especially when it the result doesn't present a financial or physical hardship.


Other people, though, I have noticed sometimes react with anger, sadness or indignation holding firm to the belief that locals should feel privileged to be visited by westerners and should therefore treat us as they would treat an honored guest. I do not share this belief. Instead, I often feel proud of locals who maximize their own fortune when besotted with tourists like myself. In a world with disparities in wealth and power such that I can travel nearly anywhere I wish while inhabitants of the places I visit can rarely afford to leave their hometowns much less gain permission travel to the USA, I feel it is their due to make the most of their situation.

You might be wondering what spurred this rant, given all my previous posts about the beauty and peacefulness of Tonga... Well, travel isn't without its difficult moments and awkwardness and despite being paradise Tonga isn't sheltered from these realities.

It all started when I was admiring the handicrafts at the market in Neiafu. The intricately woven baskets caught my eye (surprise) and as I picked up one to inspect the workmanship, the lady manning the shop informed me that she had made the lovely basket in my hands. I turned the basket over, looking for a price, finding none. "Free!" I jokingly thought to myself.

Instead of asking for the price, I voiced my desire to learn how to make such beautiful weavings. The woman smiled and shared that she had been teaching an American woman all week to make this type of basket and that she could teach me too. I was delighted and asked after the cost of the lessons and when she would be available to teach me. By this point, I'd been joined by Cheri whose sailboat I was staying on. We agreed to meet on Friday at 10am at her stall, pay $20 Pangan ($12) per person and bring all the friends we wanted.

When Friday came, Cheri and I were joined by two other western women and one of their 9 year old daughters. The local weaver, Bianeta, laid out a cloth on the concrete floor of the market between the tables where her baskets and those of a friend where on display. We lowered ourselves to the hard ground, took off our shoes and sat cross-legged, waiting for the instruction to begin. Bianeta handed out pre-started basket centers and showed us how to weave in the pandanus leaves to continue the basic weaving pattern. In a few minutes we were weaving away, slowly but surely picking up the simple stitch and then learning how to add in extra reeds to maintain the stiffness of the work as it wound round and round, enlarging the piece as we persisted.

My pre-started weaving, reeds coming out towards the left and pandanus leaf making the next stitch.

Occasionally when one of us would spot an error in our work, Bianeta or one of her friends would fix our weaving and return it to us. But for the most part, we were just enjoying the quiet company of each other and the local weavers as we worked along. After about an hour, the young girl decided she was done and her mother paid Bianeta $20 Pangan, packed up the 3" unfinished coaster-like weaving and left. Cheri, our friend Caroline and I continued for another hour after which we planned to get lunch.

A glimpse of our group, weaving away with the help of kind local women.

As we wrapped up our second hour, I asked Bianeta if I could get supplies to finish my project and she happily said yes. Then it was time to pay. I asked how much I owed, assuming the supplies cost extra. I was surprised to hear that the price was $20 Pangan per hour plus another $20 for the supplies, so $60 Pangan ($36 US) in total. It was double what I was expecting but I paid anyway without argument as it wasn't going to put much of a dent in our savings and I had enjoyed myself. But Cheri and Caroline were a little less comfortable with the new price. Cheri felt bad that she'd told her friend it was a flat rate of $20 Pangan for the lesson and Caroline felt the price was too high for what we'd gotten. That's when the awkwardness ensued. Bianeta held firm to her price, and eventually Cheri paid and we left Caroline to settle up her account while we went off to lunch.

A sampling of the supplies I took home. Top to bottom: pandanus leaves cut thin for weaving, uncut pandanus leaves curled up, and reeds made from coconut fronds.

Later we learned that Caroline had voiced her discomfort with the price and had negotiated a price of $50 for a handcrafted basket made by Bianeta with the lessons thrown into the deal and no supplies to go. She left upset by the interaction and feeling like Bianeta had tried to treat her unfairly. I felt bad for Caroline and didn't want to her be unhappy, yet I still felt positive about our weaving adventure.

Sometimes when I travel with other people, I find myself wondering why I experience things so differently than them. Introspection is helpful in these situations and I eventually settled on the following as the explanation for why I was content with how things had gone:

  1. The basketweaving lesson was my idea, not that of a pushy salesman
  2. I had learned a new skill taught to me by a friendly local
  3. I only spent $36, including supplies to continue crafting for hours back on the boat
  4. A two-hour basket weaving class costs at least $100 in the United States, supplies not included

I believe paradise is in the eye of beholder. And I choose to believe that Tonga is paradise, basketweaving lessons included.


Blazing beaches

Beach bonfires at sunset are a universal good and we got to have one on Ovalua Island the other night!

Earlier in the day, I gathered twigs, dried coconut palm fronds and bark. Cheri, Jeff and Josh collected bigger branches and we stacked them high, tossed old newspaper and dried leaves underneath and set them ablaze.

Jeff collecting coconut fronds with beer in hand.
Cheri showing off her squirreled away newspaper which started our fire.
Pouring drinks and building a fire, the perfect way to start an evening.
Cheri drags the biggest branch back to camp.
Josh starts the fire while our boat S/V Grasshopper floats on to the right.

Josh poured drinks, coconut rum with pineapple juice or coke. And we toasted the sunset, fire and crystal clear waters of Tonga.

Booze and a boat!

Josh and I pose with smiles plastered on our faces.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

An old love in a new light

I have long loved hammocks. Not banana hammocks, as my childhood friends and I called speedos. But real hammocks, the kind you pass lazy days in reading, relaxing and--if you're lucky--napping.

For the last few years, Josh and I have toted our his-and-hers double-wide tandem hammocks around, from campground to campground and flying site to flying site. We've hung them from fat Redwood trees and tall skinny pine trees. We've napped, read books and played a million variations of make-believe with our niece in nephew in them. We've even been known to cuddle together in our hammock.

But in Tonga, I finally got to hang our hammock between two palm trees above a soft beige beach with turquoise waves lapping at the shore. It was splendid!

Coral reefs hide beneath turquoise waters.

A soft breeze ruffled the palm fronds while fluffy cotton clouds formed a blanket across the baby blue sky. The air was warm, but not too warm and it as delightfully not humid. Our friends' boat was anchored a little ways off in the distance and the island was deserted, save for a momma goat her two kids.

Looking up into a soft sky framed by palm trees.

I found peace awaiting me in our navy blue and yellow hammock. And all I could do was smile, and then attempt a nap.

Swinging in the hammock with a lovely view.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

I can see the bottom

Off of Nuku Island in Tonga, we snorkeled in the clearest water I have ever seen. We could see the bottom more than 40' deep.

We snorkeled amongst patches of coral strewn across a sandy bottom. Tucked into rocks I spied sea urchins the size of beach balls in a variety of colors, from jet black to black-and-white striped to a deep maroon so dark it was nearly black. Along the sandy bottom, sea cucumbers made their slow journeys, some dressed in dark velvet green with ruffles and others in a smooth bing cherry red with bubble gum pink bellies.

Throughout the shoreline, were massive sea stars with legs nearly a foot long and the color of Concord grape juice. We also found a new (to us) variety of sea star in burgundy and forest green with more than a dozen legs and covered in fat, yellow spikes. On the way back to shore, I eyed a final chubby pink sea star with tentacles reminiscent of the legs on my childhood cabbage patch dolls.

We also saw our first eels in the South Pacific. A brown one with yellowish pin-sized dots and a bright white mouth. The second eel was nearly the inverse of the first, cloaked in white with dark freckles. Both hid in their holes, revealing just their heads and a few inches of their creepy bodies.

The most unusual thing we discovered was a Christmas red snail-like creature with a white pattern across its top that reminded me of lace It was about six inches long, a couple inches wide and sported two floppy antennae. As we watched, it army-crawled along at a pace so slow we questioned whether it was actually moving.

As for fish, there was quite a variety although few in number. My favorite was a two-inch long neon-blue fish with iridescent fins and a neon orange stripe down its back. We also saw more long, skinny flutemouths, yellow and black striped moorish idols, multicolor parrotfish, blue-beaked bird wrasse, and black-eyed threadfin butterflyfish.

Monday, September 1, 2014

$3 for a cucumber and piglets everywhere

Our first Monday morning in Neiafu (the capital of Vava'u) we visited the farmers market with its wooden tables of fresh vegetables and herbs. Carefully arranged stacks of tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers and carrots were on display.

The market as seen from above.

Josh checks out the produce in the distance while I ogle the ripe, homegrown tomatoes.

I was delighted to see cucumbers and asked the wrinkled, smiling lady behind the table for the price. $3 Tonga Pangan roughly ($1.80 US), she said holding up three fingers. I gave in, pleased to have a nice, firm cucumber to snack on. I turned to the table on the other side of aisle, reaching for the tomatoes. $3 the young woman in the burgundy dress said, pointing to the pile of five tomatoes. I held up two small tomatoes. $0.50 was their price. What a deal! I thought. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. The cucumber lady was holding up two more cucumbers and when our eyes met she stuffed them in my bag. Oh! It was $3 for three cucumbers. How nice!

Our shopping continued, us admiring each woman's table of fresh produce, each seller telling us the piles were $3. In addition to the cucumber and tomatoes, we bought the tartest star fruit I've ever eaten, limes with orange flesh and sweet finger-sizes bananas. Then we checked out the grocery store on the wharf, bought a bag of plain potato chips ($5) and found a bench overlooking the harbor to devour our snacks.

Mini bananas!

Lots of root veggies! Taro and kava (like yams) piled high in baskets made of palm fronds.

The thing about shopping in Neiafu is that there is only one market for fresh produce yet dozens of shops that sell canned goods and frozen meats. There is no Walmart or Costco or other international grocery store. If you are looking for plain potato chips, curry powder, or corn flakes cereal, you may very well have to go to four or more stores. And size doesn't seem to matter. Some of the shops are hardly 100 sqft, yet they have things that the bigger stores don't.

Fresh, unfrozen meat doesn't seem to exist, even though there are pigs everywhere. Because it is springtime here, all the animals have little ones. The pigs have piglets--up to eight for one sow. I spotted chickens wandering the streets with a cloud of chicks behind them and I even found a sweet puppy to befriend at the farmers market. I really wanted to cuddle the piglets and chicks, but I figured their parents would not approve and I wasn't in the mood to be attacked by a full-grown pig or a feisty mother hen.

Fluffy chicks!
Piglets, oh how I want to cuddle you!
Sweet little puppy loves a tummy rub.

For a place in the middle of the ocean, there is surprisingly little seafood available for sale in Neiafu. Behind the farmers market is a little white concrete building with a freezer case like what you'd find in Safeway. But they only had red snapper and white snapper for sale. No prawns, no mahi mahi, no lobster--nothing but whole snapper. Luckily for us, our Seattle friends Jeff and Cheri caught a Dorado on their way into Vava'u, and had shrimp, tuna and a lobster tail tucked away in their sailboat's freezer for us to feast on in the coming days.