Monday 22 June 2015


The Kingdom of Tonga is an archipelago of 176 islands, of which 52 are inhabited. In 1900 Tonga signed a treaty of friendship with Britain and in 1970 Tonga became independent. The consequence of this is that it lives off its own resources without the colonial subsidies of most South Pacific Islands. But the great advantage is that its traditions and culture have been preserved without compromise and visitors like us can experience an authentic Polynesian experience first hand.

 We are sailing towards the Vava’u Island Group in northern Tonga, to escape the Niue drizzle. I come on watch at 6am and cast my eye over the sails.  Looking up at the mainsail I can’t quite believe what I am seeing. At the base of the mast, a section of the mainsail furling system is hanging loose like an amputated stump. I go up to the mast to take a closer look. An aluminium rod, known as the luff foil, runs inside the whole length of the mast; the leading edge, or luff, of the mainsail, slides into a groove in this foil and is hoisted to the top of the mast by means of a rope halliard. By rotating the foil, the mainsail furls around it and into the mast, allowing us to reef and stow the mainsail with ease.  Somehow this foil has sheared about half a metre above the gooseneck leaving 20 metres attached to the mainsail but no longer connected to the hydraulic motor and impossible to furl.

The wind is light, but on the Eastern horizon there is a squall line chasing in behind us and after the initial shock I decide that we must get the mainsail down on deck in case the wind builds. We start lowering the mainsail but because the upper section of the foil is unattached, instead of the mainsail sliding down the foil, the foil itself starts to slide down inside the mast. We stop and have a re-think: the foil has broken with a jagged break but all the parts are intact allowing me to connect the two sections; all I need is something to make the join. After hunting through our stores we find a sturdy tin of olives that we open and wrap around the join, securing it in place with two large jubilee clips. With the foil now loosely spliced, Andrew and I stand on the coach roof and Caroline points the boat into the wind.  We let the halliard fly and the sail drops quickly onto the deck where we flake it and drop it into the lazaret, safely out of harms way.

I call Eddie Scougall, Oyster’s Support Manager on the sat phone. It is late at night in the UK so unsurprisingly there is no answer and I leave a message. As we are tidying up the sail the sat phone rings. It is Eddie, apologetic that he missed my call despite the fact that he is on holiday in France and in bed with flu. He agrees with our course of action and emails Formula, the mast manufacturer to order new parts.  Having sailed here before with the Oyster World Rally only two years ago he has all the contact in the boatyards in Fiji. An hour later there is an email in my in-box to Oyster in Ipswich and to Formula in the UK, summarising our situation and asking Formula for their advice. By the mid afternoon Mark Downs at Formula has the parts on order and has sent me detailed instructions on how to make the repair.  The problem with the mainsail is a serious one and our sail is unusable until we can repair it, however as ever I am hugely reassured to have this level of support from Oyster, despite being quite literally, on the other side of the world.

By now the wind has picked up and the grey skies from Niue have followed us, bringing squalls and gusts over 30 knots. A big low-pressure system over New Zealand is sending a 5 metre swell north into our path and I am relieved that we dropped the mainsail this morning. It is a wet and windy night, made more uncomfortable without the steadying effect of the mainsail, and it is with relief that dawn breaks and we can motor through the outer islands into the lagoon at Refuge Bay, one of the most protected anchorages in the Pacific, where we pick up a mooring buoy in flat calm water off the town of Neiafu. Customs and immigration have agreed to clear in the fleet at the Mango café; a restaurant on stilts over the water with a wooden dinghy dock where we tie up. The customs officers are friendly giants; wearing England rugby shirts and traditional Tupenu cotton wrap skirts, all of them would qualify as crash centres, but today they are here to stamp our passports and allow us into their kingdom.

Over the following days we explore the islands of Vavau. We rent go-karts to drive across the main island, but with no spare parts these aging vehicles break down every few miles providing huge amusement for the local schoolchildren.  We visit the famous Eneio botanical garden, founded by the charismatic Haniteli Fa’anunu who also acts as our tour guide. Previously the minister of agriculture, he now runs his garden as a commercial venture, demonstrating the traditional crafts of weaving and basket making that are still practised by Tongan women today. Our tour ends with a Tongan feast followed by Polynesian dancing by local school children.

In search for parts and supplies we wander the dusty streets of Neiafu. An uninspiring town, but like so many places we visit, endearing because of the people who are gentle and welcoming. With internet coverage we catch up on international news and it is depressing to see that nothing seems to change; more aggression in the Middle East, terrorist attacks in Somalia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Russian aggression in the Crimea.  By their own admission the Tongans warriors used to be the Vikings of the south pacific, marauding the islands and terrorising their neighbours – but that was in the 17th century and they have moved on.  The people of the South Pacific islands have been at peace for years and despite their bulk and scowling faces, it doesn’t take much for them to break into a grin and shake your hand. In fact this is the trait that has impressed us most as we have travelled through the South Pacific. The Polynesians are gentle people. Even their music has a dreamy relaxing quality, their dancing mesmerising as they sway in perfect unison with their hands and feet.  There must some lessons for us here.

With a few days to spare before we leave for Fiji we meet up with our friends in the bay of Malafakalava , with sunset drinks on the beach and a hotly contested game of poker on Aretha with the boys in the cockpit while the girls watch a rom com down below. After a few relaxing days in the bay we regroup with the rest of the fleet in the harbour of Neiafu to provision the boat and prepare for the short trip of three hundred miles to Fiji.


  1. Lots of kiddies - are they all on the race too? Not sure whether sail is mended or not - hope so, you are all so practical.

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