Yacht delivery Tahiti-Tonga

28 12 2016

Here’s a story I wrote for ‘The Captain’ magazine about a yacht trip I undertook from Tahiti to Tonga.

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On the day we hooked a 70kg blue marlin, we weren’t supposed to be fishing at all.

Four days into a sailing trip between Tahiti and Tonga, our little freezer was already filled with fresh wahoo and mahi mahi, so the chef asked us to stop fishing. But the crew tend to get bored on long daytime watches and fishing provides occasional bursts of excitement.

So no one was particularly upset when the battered old Penn reel started screaming, although I did notice it wasn’t stopping this time. Even when Timbo set the drag to full lock, that fish just kept on pulling.

The big diesel was knocked into neutral as Timbo began clawing a few metres of line back. Behind him, the crew discussed what type of giant critter had nearly spooled us.

After a long fight where the fish stayed deep, we settled on a big tuna, so everyone was pretty surprised when the bronzed flanks of a lit-up blue marlin broke the surface. Our next discussion was titled: “What the hell do we do now?”

A 90ft highly-varnished yacht with an overhanging stern offers no water-level access and we weren’t that keen on manhandling a feisty billfish over the side rail. Luckily, the marlin solved this dilemma for us by throwing the lure as it thrashed alongside the boat. In the cockpit, the chef breathed a sigh of relief that she wouldn’t have to reorganise the freezer.

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WEST FROM TAHITI

My mission was to help five mates deliver Kealoha, a stunning 27m Andre Hoek sloop, 1200 nautical miles from Tahiti to Tonga.

A leisurely yacht delivery with friends through the Pacific during winter? They didn’t need to ask twice.

While Melbourne suffered through countless freezing thunderstorms, I’d be barefoot, eating poisson cru in the sun. And fishing. Towing lures through the tropical Pacific. Yep.

So how did this come about? The yacht is owned by a US family who employs my buddy James as captain and his wife, Jodie, as chef-stewardess. They run the boat year-round with the help of a third crewmember.

The owner decides he wants a trip in Tahiti with his family? Take the boat to Tahiti and show ‘em a good time. Tonga next? Hire some delivery crew and get the yacht to Tonga – that’s where I came in.

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PAPEETE TOUR

This was how I found myself climbing off a plane into the fragrant, steamy air of Tahiti for the first time. And weirdly, after heading east across the International Date Line, I managed to land in Papeete before the time I boarded the plane in Sydney (don’t think too hard about this).

The next day, fellow delivery-bloke Timbo and I hired scooters to explore Papeete in the rain. Tahiti’s most heavily-populated island is still impressively pretty (and probably even better in the sunshine).

Unfortunately our schedule didn’t allow time to check out nearby Moorea which is apparently more rugged and wild, but we did find time to squeeze in a pilgrimage to the island’s famed big-wave surf spot  – Teahupo’o. Luckily it was flat, so there was no pressure to paddle out and probably die.

After a rowdy reunion with the crew,  we busied ourselves changing the yacht from ‘guest mode’ to ‘delivery mode’. This involves covering up anything shiny, stowing anything that looks breakable and filling the forward cabin with our collection of sails and surfboards.

We also brought onboard emergency water supplies, checked the mast and boom for any loose bits and fuelled up.

Jodie also loaded an incredible $3000 worth of groceries onto the yacht. If you needed any confirmation that Tahiti might be the world’s most expensive to shop, I present a $20 bunch of asparagus as evidence.

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BLUE SKIES AHEAD

At 7am the next morning, we cast off the lines and pointed west. Twenty minutes out, Tahitian drizzle gave way to Pacific sunshine and we were ploughing along using the mainsail and headsail, doing 9kts as the wind filled in.

After a safety briefing for the newly-arrived crew, everyone settled into their watch routines. My own watch ran from 4-8pm and again from 4-8am, meaning I scored both sunset and sunrise – the best parts of the day at sea.

It sounds like a cliché, but everyone deserves to experience the sun rising over the ocean with no land in sight, as a cup of tea warms your hands after a long night. Epic stuff.

Life onboard passes quickly, with plenty of magazines, guitars, and backgammon tournaments to keep the crew entertained between sailing manoeuvres. Night watches usually involve solving various global problems over more cups of tea.

More importantly, long sailing journeys provide the perfect opportunity for my favourite form of fishing – the lazy man’s bluewater trolling.

Simply toss a few skirted lures out the back, set the drag and forget about them until dinner hooks itself. Not pro-active enough, I hear you say? Perhaps, but it’s still pretty bloody effective.

Few days passed without us hooking something – we landed a solid wahoo after a marathon fight, just out from Papeete, but as you head further offshore, it’s mostly mahi mahi on offer.

These colourful bruisers never fail to put on an acrobatic show and, for my money they’re one of the most delicious fish to ever hit the grill. Having a talented sushi chef on board doesn’t hurt either.

DCIM104GOPRO

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LAND AHOY
As we gradually sailed west, the wind swung into the east, so we turned Kealoha toward the south-west for a better sailing angle. One of the surprising realities of life on a sailing yacht is that you rarely get to aim it exactly where you want to go.

While having the wind from directly astern might sound ideal, it actually translates to an annoying rolling motion onboard. But if you bear away at an angle, the yacht steadies herself nicely.

Around four days out from Tahiti, we close to the remote island of Niue and it was around 25nm offshore that the blue marlin struck.

It was the first big billfish our crew had hooked on Kealoha, although her bow bears the scars of a previous encounter – a long gouge scraped out of the antifouling a few years back. Weeks later while cruising Tonga they would catch a sailfish too – testament to the healthy waters in these parts.

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After six days at sea, we crossed the International Date Line again near Tonga and put the clock forward 23 hours, which was as strange as it sounds.

As we approached land (or where we thought it should be), it was impossible to see much as a heavy squall blasted across the decks. On the upside, the yacht got a freshwater rinse as we used the radar to edge in toward Tonga.

Our first glimpse of the northern island group was underwhelming, the land cloaked in mist and fog while we skirted steep cliffs. But after slipping between some jungle-covered islands, we reached our destination of Neifau harbour, a lush protected inlet of Vava’u island.

Now, the first step of clearing into a new country by boat involves touching base with local authorities. Our local yachting agent had been expecting us, so we called him up on the VHF radio.

This friendly fella informed the captain that our friends from another yacht, Kawila, were relaxing in his bar and we should all come ashore and join them. But we hadn’t cleared in yet? No worries – do it tomorrow. Island time!

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TONGA IS TOPS

The next few days passed in a blur of drying wet sails and gear, as we ran through multiple checklists for cleaning the yacht. But there was still time for a snorkelling trip with Tonga’s humpback whales.

The opportunity to snorkel with whales exists almost nowhere else and is as easy as it is awe-inspiring. The charter boats cruise about until the captain finds some relaxed whales swimming slowly, then you jump in with a guide and squeal your lungs out underwater.

In between leaping overboard for another humpback encounter, you’re cruising around Tonga’s vast collection of dreamy islets, observing whales breach and blow in every direction. It’s a genuine once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Tonga is incredible, a deadset watersports wonderland. Fishing, sailing, diving, kiting, surfing, spearfishing, and freediving are all super-accessible in the warm, clear waters.

There are also terrific local markets near Neifau port with delicious tropical goodies and friendly locals selling handmade crafts. As an introduction to Tonga, Vava’u and the nearby islands left a heck of an impression.

I’m not entirely sure when I’ll next get to travel there by yacht, but I don’t think I can wait that long. Winter is here and the Pacific is calling…

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