A Tongan Feast

The little brown hand grips mine softy, without intent or expectations.  I glance down into smiling eyes, devoid of any self-consciousness or embarrassment.  The child’s face is happy, ringed by a broad white smile.  Eight-year-old David escorts me into the tiny church, stopping briefly to help me remove my shoes at the open door, then leads me to the second pew, center, and snuggles close beside me.

Between me and Pam sits his little sister, Laufa.  Her features are striking, a Tongan beauty with long black hair and huge brown eyes.  In a few years she will break many hearts on Lape Island and Vaka’eitu.  From my position in front and center, I feel all the eyes in the church on the back of my head, then slowly relax and wait for the service to begin.

The church is roughly built, unadorned, with a homey feel.  Windows on all four sides allow the soft Pacific breeze to flow through and reveal a vista of breadfruit and papaya trees.  Bird-of-paradise and other colorful island flowers are placed around the alter in discarded vegetable cans.  The pulpit is a wooden box with simple inlaid carvings.

A woman behind me begins to hum.  The small congregation, about a dozen adults and five kids, slowly join in, warming up.  Two dozen Tongans live on Lape Island, and about half the village is present.  A large woman in a formal red jacket enters the church and takes her position in the pulpit.  She looks very serious and does not look up to see the small congregation.  The red jacket seems curiously out of place in this tropical heat.  There is a brief pause, and then a sudden explosion of voices as the congregation bursts into five-part harmony.  Without piano or organ, or even a pitch pipe or choir director, the voices embrace in agreement with tempo and pitch.

The woman in the red jacket begins to read from a Tongan Bible.  Her face is stern, her features strong.  I recognize her from our visit to the village yesterday.  Kulio, the village chief, had arranged a village tour followed by a wonderful Tongan feast.  The woman had showed us how to make tapa cloth.  She was stripping the bark from a mulberry branch with a tiny curly-haired girl in her lap.  The child watched the woman working with a long knife, then picked up another knife and began to imitate.  I gasped and held back the urge to take the knife out of the little girl’s hands, while the woman continued her work smiling softly at the little girl’s earnest efforts to peel back the mulberry bark.  With her face full of concentration, the girl worked away with the knife, practicing the traditional art form that would be forever preserved only by allowing the young ones to participate in this fashion.

Now, as the woman intones the words from the Tongan text, I listen to the Polynesian vowels for a moment and allow my mind to wander back to the feast the night before.  What a delicious spread of Lape Island treats!  There had been red snapper fillets fried in round medallions with a tangy dab of red sauce on top.  Crispy taro chips complemented the potato salad, with several other kinds of salads made from fruits such as green papaya.  Chicken was stewed in coconut milk, and a succulent suckling piglet was roasted on a spit.

Kulio has implemented several innovations on Lape Island, such as a greenhouse for growing tobacco, a source of income for the tiny island.  A number of young mango trees fringes the village next to ancient giants planted over a hundred years ago, and show that these people are not simply harvesting the bounty from the generations before them, but are planting for the generations that will come.  The islanders have built a small wharf for visitors and put in moorings to attract the sailing community to their Saturday evening Tongan feasts.


“The grass here is brown because there has been no rain for several months,” Kulio explained.  “But when it rains the grass is soft under your feet.  When I came to this island twenty years ago, the pigs wandered through the village and turned everything into mud.  We moved all of our pigs to the other side of the island so the grass would grow throughout the village.”

He was especially proud of a new privy that was in the final stage of construction.  “For the cruisers who visit us,” Kulio winked.

The woman in the red jacket stops her Bible reading and David’s older brother seated in the pew in front of us bolts to his feet.  The congregation rises a moment later, and a man’s sharp tenor stings the air, followed by baritones, altos, contraltos, and sopranos.  The little church lacks the adornment of the bigger churches we’d visited in Apia and Neiafu.  There are no paintings of Christ being tortured, no bleeding corpus hanging above the pulpit, no musical instruments, no choir.  But the dozen Lape Islanders in this church fairly raise the roof with their enthusiastic singing.  One of the hymns I recognize from my Southern Baptist days.  I hum along while David looks up and shows me his broad smile with teeth as white as the coral sand fringing Lape Island.

The service continues for an hour or so, the big woman in red reading from her text, David’s brother jumping to his feet, the congregation bursting into a riot of sound.  Suddenly everyone rises and begins chatting and shaking hands.  David grips my hand once more and leads me out the open door and down the path through the village.

A week later I am walking down the dusty main road of Neiafu past the bank carrying a load of fresh vegetables from the market and a couple bottles of wine in my backpack.  I pass a parked car when a small explosion of cries jerks my head to the side.  It is the kids from Lape Island, David, Laufa, and their two brothers, waving excitedly and grinning at me from the back seat.  We are happy to see each other, and we haven’t forgotten.

The Vava’u group of Tongan islands are truly a Tongan feast.  There are thirty or more good anchorages throughout the group, many secluded, all beautiful, and all a short sail away from Neiafu town, where cold beer, fresh vegetables, and wifi await.  And like the kids of Lape islands, everyone is friendly and apparently happy.  Life moves at a crawl and there is no such thing as a hurry.  We snorkel in crystal clear turquoise water over healthy, colorful coral.  We observe the migrating humpback whales, mother and calves breaching together in the warm water.  We join a group of cruising friends and hire a whale-watching boat for the day, seeing perhaps twenty different whales and jumping into the water to swim with them.  We jam with musicians in the evening, playing guitar at the bars in town.  On barely-inhabited Tapana Island we experience the most savory Spanish tapas and paella imaginable, then play guitar and sing long into the evening with classically-trained Flamenco guitarists.

Six weeks fly by like the snap of a finger, and now it is time to study the weather patterns that will take us south to New Zealand.  It is mid-October and the cyclone season is coming soon to the tropics.  Everyone is talking about the weather.  A handful of cruisers will take their boats to Fiji to wait out the cyclone season, a few more are on their way to Australia, but most will migrate like the whales down to New Zealand.  I read everything I can find that describes the weather and spend hours listening to radio broadcasts and poring over “SailMail” weather bulletins.  I am looking for weather patterns.  Everyone is saying the pattern is basically a high pressure system followed by a low pressure system, and so forth, on and on.  But the weather variations I see after weeks of study look like fractals, as complex and individual as snowflakes.  The high pressure systems veer to the north or south and sometimes lay in one place for several days, defying heuristics.  A really strong high will disturb everything in the area, and if you sail into the middle of it you will sit for days bobbing around like a corked bottle with a hand-written message by a hand long dead.  A low will bring squalls of rain, and can peter out in a day or deepen into a week of perfect storms.  Fluky winds can clock through all  points of the compass with the passing of a front and can easily soar into the 30-knot range with gusts of 50 knots.

The pattern of highs and lows seems to repeat every nine days or so.  In the ten or twelve days it will take to reach New Zealand, we will have the choice of “two highs and a low” or “two lows and a high”.  Weather forecasts are typically good for only three or four days, so a good weather window at the beginning of the trip can easily turn into a hell ride midway through.  New Zealand is 1200 miles away, and save for a few more Tongan islands to the south, there is no place to stop and rest.  The boat and crew had better be in top shape and ready to take on any kind of weather or deep-sea emergency.

It is a nerve-wracking time.

We make our plan:  we will sail 400 miles to Minerva Reef, then wait there for a good weather window for the next 800 miles.

We decide to leave Vava’u for the Ha’apai group of islands about fifty miles south, a little closer to Minerva.  Not so many cruisers go there, but a few have gone and they tell us that these islands are wonderful.  The overnight sail is bumpy.  We’re back on the open ocean after six weeks and I’m feeling like an alcoholic on a Sunday morning.

The Ha’apai islands are like the Tuamotus, lots of uninhabited low-lying islands with lovely beaches fringed by coral reefs. But the main village, Pangai, was hit hard by a cyclone last January.  The town is a sad collection of flimsy buildings without roofs, trash strewn about, skinny pigs foraging in the trash, the banana and papaya trees destroyed.  There is a low pressure system approaching and the sky is black with clouds that the people of Pangai hope will turn into rain, for the island is brown and parched.  Even the coconut trees, typically green and shiny, seem gray and dull.  We check in at Pangai, then officially check out of the Kingdom of Tonga.

There is a pretty island a few miles to the south, Uoleva, with a good anchorage and superb white beach, so we decide to go there and wait for our weather window to Minerva.  There is a lean-to bar on the beach, and it is my plan to get an ice-cold beer there.  I picture a scene from Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands — Ivan’s Stress-Free Bar, a lean-to in the sand, just down from the Soggy Dollar.  Uoleva is pretty, but the wind is howling, the sky is gray, and the anchorage is rolly.  It is too rough to go snorkeling so we wait a day and then decide to swim ashore and check out the lean-to bar.

Bad luck — the bar is out of provisions, no beer, no rum, a grim-faced young man from New Zealand tells me.  But there is wifi!  Unbelievable, for the lean-to is nothing but a roof and one wall.  I decide to go back to Pamela and return in the kayak with a couple of beers, one for me and one for the grim-faced young man.

While we sip our beers, Pam reads her email.  There she finds devastating news:  Julian has fallen from a climbing wall and he’s in the intensive care unit of a Boston hospital.  He may have a broken back.  The news is very brief and there are no further details.

Pam and I are in anguish.  These Ha’apai islands are the remotest we’ve been in so far, miles from an airport, and sailing to New Zealand will take two or three weeks depending on the weather and a rest stop at Minerva Reef.  Luckily Pam is wise and brought back a satellite phone when she visited the States in May.  She calls Yvonne and the hospital and learns that Julian has a broken pelvis and his L1 vertebra might also be damaged.  He can’t move one of his arms.  His pain is so intense he can barely move his toes to signal to the doctors that he is not paralyzed.  Tomorrow the doctors will test to see if surgery is needed.  I hug Pam forlornly on the little beach while she cries in my arms.

My beautiful boy has broken his back, and my pretty wife is falling to pieces on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The tropical night brings a torrent of despair as we wait for further news.  Will Julian be able to walk again?  We imagine all sorts of horrors.  In the morning we learn that his condition is stable, the pelvis has a fracture that will heal without surgery, and there is no damage to his spine.  He can move his legs and arms.  Yvonne is an angel and provides more details as she confers with the doctors and notifies the Dean of Boston College.  Aunt Kay is prepared to fly to Boston from North Carolina if necessary to assist Julian when he is released from the hospital in a week or so.

The morning brings more news:  the weather window from Tonga to Minerva Reef looks good.  A low-pressure trough will hit Tonga in a couple of days and if we leave now we can get in front of it.  It is time to say goodbye to the Kingdom of Tonga, time to finally begin the long journey to New Zealand.  The Tongan feast is over.

My last sight of Tonga is the high uninhabited island of Tofua.  This is where the infamous mutiny of HMS Bounty took place.  The sky is black and the seas are beginning to get rough as I gaze upon the steep-sided shores of Tofua.  Just off of Tofua island in April 1789, Fletcher Christian and his mutineers lowered a longboat and forced Captain William Bligh to row to the island.  Bligh didn’t stay long, and had to run for his life, for the island was inhabited by fierce Tongans who attacked the longboat and killed one of his men.  The island is a volcano that blew its top 20,000 years ago, forming a massive fresh water lake in its crater.  But Bligh did not know about the lake, and had to make his incredible 4,000 mile open boat journey with very little water.  What he lacked in people skills he made up for in ocean navigation.  In the famous movie with Errol Flynn and Charles Laughton, Bligh (Laughton) whips a man with a cat-o’-nine-tails.  The crewmen are forced to watch, and one of them gets sick at the sight, for the poor man is dead before the lashing begins and Laughton decides to whip him anyway.

The Tongan feast is over.  Like Hemingway’s Paris, it is a moveable feast and we are on the move once again.

We sail past Tofua at seven and a half knots, a speed record for Pamela.  She is happy to be racing finally to New Zealand, like a horse tossing its bit and pounding furiously down a country lane and back to the barn.  I’m happy too.  Very soon the dream of sailing from San Francisco to New Zealand will be realized.  It feels great to be once again on the endless sea.