Sunday, June 12, 2016

Impressions of Tonga

We have now been here for a month, enjoying ourselves mostly, and also trying to make sense of this unusual country. It is beautiful; it has a lovely climate (at this time of year), the water is pristine, and the people are lovely, friendly, and welcoming. We have felt safe.

There are also some significant 'buts'.

A helpful book is 'Making sense of Tonga: a visitors guide to the Kingdom's rich Polynesian culture'. Written by a Peace Corps guide, it is serious, unlike one Peace Corps guide to the Amazon. I have also read 'Tupaia: Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator', and highly recommend it.

The 'but' side of Tonga includes the facts that it is a feudal society, priest-ridden, and over-run with pigs.

'Feudal' is seriously uncool. The society is highly stratified, with the King and God in the top rank, nobles in the middle rank, and commoners and animals in the bottom rank. There are three vocabularies, relating to the three levels. An example in the 'Making sense' book is:

Noble to commoner: 'Nice to see you. How are your children?'
Commoner to noble: 'My litter is doing well. Thanks for asking'.

One weird effect of rank is that a gift to someone has to be re-gifted immediately to someone of higher rank. It is therefore better to do a transaction with a Tongan when there is no-one else present.

It is thus the case that it has all the features of a communal society; possessions are not really privately owned by an individual, but with an added malign twist, that possessions are not shared with ones peers, but rather percolate up the rank system.

The royal family and nobles sound significantly dodgy. King Tupou VI, his family, powerful nobles and a growing non-royal elite caste live in much wealth, with the rest of the country living in relative poverty. Demands for democratic reform have been met with minimalism and delays. Critical newspapers have been restricted. Tonga was named the sixth most corrupt country in the world by Forbes magazine in 2008.

Priest-ridden is seriously uncool. The churches have done very well out of the 'give upwards' system. Anyone who doesn't donate generously is shamed. Donation means giving to your 'betters' what they want. Churches have established themselves near the top of the pecking order, and exploit the people ruthlessly.

About 90% of the population is aligned with one church or another. Many activities are illegal on Sundays, including fishing, work at home, etc.

According to Wikipedia, the main churches are:
  • Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga (36%)
  • Mormons (18%)
  • Roman Catholics (15%)
  • Free Church of Tonga (12%)
Especially on the poorer islands and villages, there is an excessive diversion of capital into competitive church-building.


On Nomuka, in Ha'apai, we came across this working bee. These women were gutting fish.


Nearby, men were cutting them ready to be dried.


Here is the Mormon minister who is running the show.


He is hanging the fish from tree branches to dry to send back to his church in Australia.


This is to raise money for more church-building. This is one of several churches in a dirt-poor village on the island of Nomuka. I should have thought a better use of the money would be for some process to freeze fish and send it to market, rather than hanging it from trees for flies and seabirds.

Or better housing than these examples.




Christopher Hitchens would have found a few examples to illustrate his views on religion.

Pigs. I have never seen so many pigs in my life. They have a special place in Pacific Island cultures.

Pigs range free, converting most villages into open pig-sties. Some houses erect fences to keep them out of their 'gardens'. Only these gardens can grow anything in the way of flowers or vegetables. Pigs root everything else up. 


Cemeteries are at risk, if graves are not fenced.


And cemeteries are a big feature.




Here is a blog entry from another yachtie: Christianity, the King, and Culture.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Images from Vava'u

George's brother Ken warned us that we might find Vava'u a bit tame. It is beautiful, the climate is lovely, and the people are friendly, but he is right. It's like a small Whitsundays, with palm trees, and lots of coral, but the distances and navigation are such that we haven't done much sailing. Rather we motor from one anchorage to another, have a snorkel, have a nice lunch, read, and relax.

Here are some pictures.


Some of the islands are very poor. This woman on Lape was cooking dumplings in a very primitive kitchen.


George trying on a 'kiekie', a sort of decorative apron woven from pandanus palm fronds, which you can see drying on the line on the right. See also the Japanese aid solar unit. The Chinese aid mostly goes to solar powered street lights. US aid seems to go to reinforcing churches to double as cyclone shelters. Water tanks often have 'Australian aid' written on them.


The east coast of Kenutu


This and the ones below are 'High Dynamic Range (HDR)' photos. Over-the-top for some, but interesting for others. From the east coast of Kenutu, facing the Pacific and the SE Trade winds.




A Spanish restaurant on Tapana Island called 'La Paella'. A lot of fun; it featured a superb tapas meal, and a Basque guitarist called Eduardo.


A fale at a resort near Neiafu, close to where we had a lovely quiet anchorage.


George and street kids


Tongan girls on Utungake


Matamaka primary school


George teaching: 'Inside your head is your brain'


Dave processing kids photos


Matamaka ferry in the rain

Thursday, June 2, 2016

You'd love this, Dad!

My father, Tom, died in 2008. He was a lovely man, and we enjoyed a great friendship once the storms of adolescent rebellion had settled. He taught me many recreational skills, especially sailing, fishing, and woodwork, all of which get used when we are cruising. With time on my hands, I often find myself in conversation with Tom, and showing him things that I think would interest him.

After my wife Liz died, I asked him if there was anything he would like to do before he died. He replied that he would like to sail around the Whitsundays with me. I sailed my last boat, Sahula, to the Whitsundays, and Tom flew out. We had a lovely fortnight together.


'Hallelujah' sung by Anna Straton

He enjoyed techie things, and would have loved some of the technical developments that have occurred in the last eight years. 

Check these out, Dad!

Solar power and MPPT. We had solar panels on Sahula, of course, so you knew about them. But on Nimrod, there is a lot more real estate available for panels. We have 490 watts mounted on the shades above the cockpit. The biggest breakthrough has been Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) regulation. It takes a high voltage, of the sort that you get when you run solar panels in series, and converts it to a lower voltage but more amps. I have seen 35 amps charging in full sun! I don't know what you would have got from your charging arrangements, but I know that would have impressed you. 

Watermaker. We have a Spectra Ventura 200T 12-volt watermaker. It uses about 8 amps. You used to take great pride in frugality when we cruised your boat Styria around Brittany in France. We don't need to worry. On a sunny day, if we go for a walk, or if we are motor-sailing, I put on the watermaker for a few hours, and we get an extra 100-200 litres in the tank. George and I use about 40 litres a day between us.

GRIB files. The principle cultural input into our family when I was a child was the weather forecast on the radio. No TV (thanks for that). Negligible music. But whenever the weather forecast was on, all ears were on it. Now we can instantly call up detailed weather for the next seven days, with hour by hour wind strength, rain etc, for anywhere in the world. Phenomenal!


AIS transceiver. Crossing the English Channel was a fraught exercise, dodging the streams of ships heading east and west. We used to carry a metal contraption like some folding origami hanging from the spreaders in the faint hope that we would be more visible to the radar of these ships, and that someone would be watching. Now the Automatic Identification System (AIS) allows vessels to be shown on our chartplotter, with full details. Since we got the transceiver version, we transmit as well as receive, so they can see us too. Far more visibly than by radar. For good measure, we now have AIS units attached to our self-inflating life-jackets, so that if either George or I fell over the side, our position would be shown on the chartplotter, greatly assisting a successful retrieval. How cool is that?

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Navigating in the Pacific around coral

The two biggest challenges for yacht cruising are weather and navigation. In the south-western Pacific, most voyages are less than seven days, roughly the horizon for weather forecasting using GRIB files. I'll discuss that another time.

Navigation has become much easier since we have had GPS satellites. Especially since the Clinton/Gore government generously ended the US Government practice of 'Selective Availability (SA)' under which a deliberate error was introduced to give the US an advantage over potential enemies. SA was turned off in 2000, which had the effect of increasing the accuracy for navigation by GPS from 100-200 metres to something like 10 metres. Ten metres is fantastic.

Unfortunately, there is still a fly in the ointment. Although we know where we are to about ten metres by satellite defined position, the charts in the Pacific are often out by up to two miles! 

This can produce a rude shock to yachties who have become used to trusting their chart-plotters. We can be sublimely confident in our position when a big bang indicates that the Earth is not where it is supposed to be! Modern electronic charts are mostly derived from old charts drawn before GPS. Our current uptodate charts were based on a survey conducted in 1898!

There are various solutions.

1) Give much greater allowances to reefs and rocks than we are used to doing.
2) Use radar to compare the position of an echo from a cliff with the line of the same cliff on the chart. When there is a discrepancy, look out!
3) Use multiple sources of information, don't trust only one.
4) Use charts derived from screenshots from Google Earth photo imagery, which is geo-located using GPS, not old charts.

Google Earth navigation is rapidly coming of age. I thought I would write a brief tutorial on how we are using it.

I have plagiarized some of the pioneers of this technique in a separate website: 



My laptop is a MacBook Pro. It can run the OpenCPN navigation software, but the software to generate new KAP files from Google Earth only runs on Windows. If you want to generate KAP files for another part of the globe, you will need to borrow a Windows computer with as higher resolution screen as possible, and then create tiles of geo-referenced KAP files using Google Earth Pro (which recently was released free, instead of costing about $400 per month! The software to automate the tiling is called GE2KAP. It can be downloaded here

You can also download previously created KAP files, with which you can try the system out. Soggy Paws is a boat whose owners have produced quite an archive. Find it here. It is possible to make much higher resolution images if you do it yourself.

A useful trick can get around one problem with Google Earth images. Sometimes the photo has a cloud covering a crucial area. By playing with the 'History' option, you can move back in time until you find a photo that was taken on a fine day.

Lots of people swear by OpenCPN. It works, but seems pretty clunky to me. At times I want active plotting with my boat icon moving fluently along its track, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, my active red icon becomes a grey zombie, and stays stuck at its last known location.

I have found a better program for displaying Google Earth charts is the free iPad app SEAiq Open. It seems faster and more robust than OpenCPN, and uses the same KAP files. Full instructions can be found by opening the app, selecting 'Charts' and opening the 'Help' ? section.


This is our rig. Mostly I use the Raymarine chartplotter, with the fishfinder page also active if we are considering anchoring and I want to see the quality of the bottom. When I get to a new area, I put on the radar to compare the images from the radar with the images from the Navionics charts.

The MacBook Pro, with its USB GPS aerial attached to the window above it, is running OpenCPN with Google Earth charts converted to KAP files.

The iPad is running SEAiq Open, using its built-in GPS receiver. It is also showing Google Earth images. It also carries books such as a local cruising guide, a different Navionics chart, etc.

The system worked really well when we had to leave northern Ha'apai at 10 pm at night. We were anchored inside some coral reefs, and had to work our way out past some bommies without being able to see them in the dark. Using the 'Track' line on the chartplotter which recorded the way we entered, and the Google Earth images of the bommies on the iPad, we got out safely.


Monday, May 30, 2016

Happy in Ha'apai

The three main parts of Tonga are:

Tongatapu. The main island, with the capital Nuku'alofa in the south.
Ha'apai, in the middle.
Vava'u, in the north.

We started in the south, and are wending our way north.

Ha'apai is remote and relatively primitive, but beautiful, and navigationally challenging.


This is a panorama of photos from a drone. From the left; Foa,  Nukunamo and Ha'ano islands in northern Ha'apai. We stayed a few days anchored off Nukunamo Island, and met the people who run the Matafonua resort. This photo was taken by Darren Rice, one of the owners of the resort.

Darren has also made some amazing videos of whales, using underwater cameras and drones.


More videos here.


A breaking wave at sunset outside our lagoon anchorage at Kelefesia Island, the southernmost of the Ha'apai group. It involved a 4 am start from Pangaimotu in order to negotiate the coral with good light.


Snorkelling over a bommie



Our next stop north was Nomuka Iki. It is paired with the bigger Nomuka Island, with better weather coverage between the two. One problem with Ha'apai is that most of the anchorages offer limited protection if a front comes through and the wind comes from the west.



Who lives in here?


Two white-tailed tropic bird chicks


Approaching rain-squall


Kids on Nomuka




School-boys dressed in tupenos


Leaving Nomuka at dawn, skirting outside the reef.



Would it be OK if I had a feed like the other piglets? Ha'afeva Island.


We signed up for a 'cultural experience' on Ha'ano Island. The women's groups arranged it to raise money for various good causes. It was an alternative to most money raising exercises benefitting the plethora of churches. Above is a horse and cart experience. Metal wheels, no springs and a rutted road made walking attractive!



Dancers at the cultural event on Ha'ano Island


After a night crossing from Ha'apai we arrived at the spectacular Vava'u group. This is tourism central, with whale-watching and diving with whales, as well as a significant charter fleet.


Inside the Swallows Cave, Vava'u


See the bait fish in the very clear water, lit up by the late afternoon sun. 


Nimrod in the middle distance in Neiafu Harbour, Vava'u.


Checking in with customs turns into a medical consultation. Dr George advises weight loss might help a leg ulcer. See his skirt (tupeno) and ta'ovala (floor mat worn around waist).


More schoolboys in tupenos, Neiafu.