Linger longer

John Borthwick | VOLUME 21, ISSUE 1
Think of Tonga as a low-rise Tahiti: Polynesia, minus the volcanic peaks and Gauguin mystique. In place of these, Tonga offers a water maze of archipelagos, villages that still ring with Sunday hymns and a fine national sense of humour.
A South Pacific yachting odyssey.

“H is name could be Tu’longalofa’onth’sofa,” jokes a Tongan man to me in the capital, Nuku’alofa as we watch a schoolboy the size of a State of Origin front-rower head towards an ice-cream shop. Any sailor landing here soon learns two facts: Tonga is the Pacific’s last monarchy and is home to some of the most sturdily-built folk on earth.

While Tongans’ esteem for their bulky royals has been seriously shaken in recent years, the one joke you won’t hear concerns the time when their late, much-revered Queen Salote attended Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation parade in London. A friend of playwright and wit Noel Coward wondered aloud who the little man sharing a carriage with the 160-kilo Tongan queen might be? Coward replied, “Her lunch.”

We’ve come to Vava’u, Tonga’s northernmost archipelago, for the Kalia Cup “fun regatta,” an annual ‘round-the-islands romp of short races and long drinks. Ahead are 10 days of sailing and somnolence, mozzies, church music, sapphire shallows and cobalt depths, plus a rolling party maul that will progress from shore restaurants then boat-to-boat around half the fleet.

At Neiafu, ‘capital’ of Vava’u, the Moorings charter base overlooks the romantically named Port of Refuge Harbour. The 13 boats in our fleet are a mixture of Beneteaus and Jenneaus, ranging from 37 to 46 feet, plus three Robertson Caine catamarans. (One of the cats with the somewhat challenging name of Fakaha’aha’a has been politely re-dubbed Ingwe.) Most of the 66 participants are from Australia, while the yacht base manager, race starter, fleet-overseer and jack-of-all-trades is an extraordinary young Kiwi, Andrew Duff, aka “Tiny” – because he’s not. The ringmaster of the event is the indefatigable Trevor Joyce from Sydney-based Mariner Boating Holidays.

Race one down to Hunga Island – a distance of 10 miles – takes the fleet southwest through a narrow, fjord-like passage between whale-prowed headlands and cupcake islands. More of a shakedown than a real race, it ends with us threading line astern, like so many ducks, through a narrow keyhole gap between cliffs to enter Hunga’s circular lagoon. We drop anchor off Ika Lahi, a Kiwi-run game fishing resort and restaurant, where an excellent seafood feast awaits and the village kids put on a dance show.


Tongan dancing, it should be noted, is nothing like the Viagra-esque Tahitian or Cook Island hula, with all those flying tresses, gymbal hips and coconut shell bras. Tongan girls sway modestly, wrapped from shoulder to knee in tapa or a sarong, their arms glistening with oil. Admirers can step forward and stick bank notes to their oiled skin, a custom that is known as fakapale, meaning “to award a prize.”

The first of our lay days finds us lazing away the morning in Hunga lagoon, before drifting off one-by-one to nearby Foeata Island. After slaloming through a field of bommies, we drop anchor in Foeata’s shallow lagoon. Such is the transparency of the water over the white sand bottom that the yachts seem to be levitating at the top of their anchor chains. The anchorage is known as Blue Lagoon after the restaurant and small resort on shore run by a gigantic German chef, Fileti, who prepares an extraordinary buffet lunch of seafood, steak and vegetables. “It’s like Gilligan’s Island with power,” notes one of my shipmates, referring to the restaurant’s eccentric architecture of coconut poles and beams, thatch roof and glass fishing-net floats. Blue Lagoon’s beachfront guest fales continue the same ‘Driftwood Hilton’ aesthetic.

Next day it’s time to compete again with two races, both eight miles. We start race two sailing into the teeth of a 20-knot southeaster, with plenty of tacking duels. In the background, those of us who have time to look around spot a humpback whale joyously breaching and spy-hopping. Vava’u is one of the world’s best whale-watching destinations. Our course weaves through a lei of low coral islands, walled by sheer limestone escarpments and topped with glossy foliage. High-rise here is a coconut tree. Crossing the finish line at uninhabited Fonua’one’one Island, where the waters are absurdly turquoise, we anchor for lunch, followed by a swim or snorkel before the next race. “I don’t know how it gets any better than this – but we’re coping,” declares Trevor over the VHF.

Race three is to Kapa Island’s Port Maurelle – named after the first European to reach Vava’u, in 1781, Spanish navigator Don Francisco Maurelle – where a wide, sheltered bay provides room for our whole fleet, as well as a handful of trans-Pacific cruising yachts. (The likes of whom sometimes prove to be surprisingly territorial, with sniffy comments to us like, “Oh, will you be here long?”). A beach barbecue erupts, driven by a local band, that segue from Tongan to Creedence Clearwater to In the Mood and Marley. There’s a huge buffet feast on trestle tables. So, they knew we were coming? There’s even a lady selling trinkets – scrimshaw, carvings, tikis, baskets and so on – complete with a credit card machine.


Vava’u has a population of about 20,000 people spread over some 40 islands. While a third of the population lives around Neiafu, the rest are in small villages on the outer islands. With Sunday a lay day, we go ashore in Zodiacs to little Lape Island, where the local Wesleyan minister and his wife are conducting a service in their chapel. The older men and women attend wearing their Sunday best: blazers, frocks and ta’ovala pandanus wraps. There’s plenty of kneeling and standing, then soaring songs (no one sings as powerfully as Polynesians at prayer), plus sermonising and psalms – not to mention alms. The minister looks pleased by the donations the yacht crews leave in the plate; hopefully for the upkeep of the church and village school. Later it is hinted that the donations are mostly for the upkeep of the minister.

Between short bursts of race frenzy, we move from anchorage to anchorage – there are some 40 tucked safely amid Vava’u’s dreaming isles. Motoring to the northern shore of Nuapapu Island, we find the celebrated Mariner’s Cave, named after a young British sailor, Will Mariner, who was marooned in Tonga in 1806. Following Tiny, I slip into the water and swim towards a jagged limestone cliff face. Tiny duck-dives – and doesn’t reappear.

The cave is famed for the romantic tale of a Vava’u princess, who was to be executed (along with her family, the losers in a tribal intrigue), but who instead was whisked away by a suitor. Bringing her to this cliff, he had her dive down to a short submarine passage, which then opens out to a large cave inside the cliff. I take a deep breath and follow Tiny down then up into the cave that remains hidden entirely from outside view. The swell rises and ebbs in here, but there are high ledges on which one – even a princess – could sit. With each pulse of the sea, the air pressure in the cavern rises and falls, as does a fine mist of spray. According to the story, the girl spent months in the cave until her lover was able to bring a canoe and flee with her to Fiji.


Another lazy day of snorkelling, perhaps trying to count the shades of cerulean, sapphire, turquoise, azure, cobalt and royal blue that these water flash, or just paddling over to a neighbour’s yacht for a G&T – such are the rigours of our regatta. The fleet scatters where it will, but at night half of us rendezvous at another of the eccentric, house of driftwood restaurants that Vava’u’s little coves give shelter to. Tonight’s venue, La Paella restaurant on Tapana Island, is known for its namesake dish and bizarre, neo-flamenco parties. Our Spanish hosts, Maria and Eduardo, churn out the paella plus a floorshow that consists of a brief flamenco fling by Maria and extended musical slaughtering by Eduardo on guitar and vocals. His microphone lashed to a limb of driftwood, Eduardo looks like Rasputin the Younger singing post-rock n’ roll in no known language – thankfully, Tiny and a musical sailor named Derek, intervene with some recognisable Chuck Berry.

Race four restores some sanity and discipline to the fleet as we belt down to Sisia Island then dogleg back north to Utangaki Island – again, eight miles – to finish in front of the Tongan Beach Resort. At the latter, we scrub up for the day’s post-race presentation, plus drinks and dinner. On the afternoon of the final day, we cruise back to Neiafu to join the local Friday twilight race around Refuge Harbour, the results of which count in the Kalia Cup series.

The final night’s raucous dinner and rally presentations are held at Neiafu’s harbourside Mermaid Restaurant. Tongan dancers, fire-eaters, a rock band and plenty of lubrication kick the party into overdrive and over-time. I find time to ask Tiny, who’s been working in Vava’u for several years and is now on his last trip, what he’ll miss most? “The people, without a doubt. Their warmth and the way the Tongans help each other – they’re really special people.”

Me, I’ll miss things like swimming to the next yacht – with blue starfish on the lagoon floor below – for lunch or a sundowner. Or anchoring for the night beneath a philosophers’ sky, where a half-moon ladles out the stars. Or contemplating the irony of Tonga’s sub-title. Captain James Cook, visiting Tonga’s Ha’apai group in 1777, was so struck by the friendliness of its chiefs he declared that it should be known as “the Friendly Isles”, a name later applied to all of Tonga. What Cook didn’t realise was that the chiefs, who were so tirelessly “friendly”, were disputing at length about how and where to kill him. Their debate raged on, unresolved, for so long that Cook sailed happily away, never the wiser.

The writer travelled courtesy of Mariner Boating.

Destination: Kingdom of Tonga.

Location: 3200km northeast of Sydney, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Scattered over 700,000sq km of sea between Fiji and Samoa, the total land area of Tonga is only 691sq km. The Vava’u archipelago is some 250km north of the capital, Nuku’alofa on Tongatapu Island. Population: 102,000 people, mostly Polynesians. Languages: Tongan, but English is widely spoken. Religion: Predominantly Christian.

Sailing season: May to October.

Special Events: Mariner Boating Holiday’s Kalia Cup Regatta 2006: 11-night excursion, 20-31 July. Prices start from $4175 per person on a 41ft, six-berth Beneteau Oceanis 411 yacht and include international and local flights as well as social functions and much more.

Mariner Boating Holidays also arrange yacht charter (bareboat or crewed) for independent itineraries. Mariner Boating Holidays, tel: (02) 9966 1244.

Accommodation: Good Vava’u resorts include Ika Lahi (especially for fishing), Blue Lagoon (for real tranquility), The Tongan or the more upmarket Mounu Island Resort.

Contact: Ika Lahi, Tonga Fishing. The Tongan Beach Resort, Mounu Island Resort, Blue Lagoon,

Off Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu, two island resorts, Fafa and Royal Sunset, offer plenty of creature comforts plus easy access to the capital, Nuku’alofa’s international airport.

Ha’afatu Surf Resort (northwest Tongatapu) has good reef surfing just offshore. Contact: Royal Sunset Resort, Fafa Island Resort, Ha’afatu Surf Resort,

Getting there: Pacific Blue flies direct Sydney-Tongatapu.

Tel: 13 1645. Website: Australian passport holders do not require a tourist visa.

Boat Test