Water Nomads New Zealand | Boardpacking Tonga Part 1


Water Nomads Tonga Story Part 1

Hmm, that’s going to be interesting. What have we got? An inflatable WindSUP with rear and center fins both knocked off, on an uninhabited island in Vava’u, Tonga.

At least both of those fins are still there, I haven’t lost them completely. It was only a gentle touch on a coral bomber, I thought it was deeper. I’m clearly not used to sailing in tropical places!  How in earth are we going to fix that and get it going again?  This is our sole means of transport, the only way to get away from here, as we can’t crowd the two of us on one board. They are barely floating as they are with all the gear on board! There is possibly not even cell phone coverage here to book a water taxi to pick us up! Well, at least we have food and water for a few days, and plenty of coconut trees growing on the island. We should survive for a few days. 

Opps, that water wasn't deep enough.....
Opps, that water wasn't deep enough.....

It’s the second day of our 2 weeks boardpacking trip around Vava’u, and we are stuck already…..

How did we get here? And what are we actually doing?

It’s May 2016. After our Maui holiday the previous year (which was fantastic, don’t get me wrong), I wanted another tropical holiday, but this time with a bit more adventure. The Tongan island group of Vava’u seemed to offer itself to be explored, preferably by sea kayak. Sea kayaks have plenty of storage to be independent for a couple of weeks and can handle reasonably rough weather. They are also small and stealth enough to travel “under-the-radar” in case we end up in places we shouldn’t be. And they have no draft, so there is no problem about reefs or getting grounded and you can land just about anywhere and pull them up on a beach.

The only problem was, how to get a kayak to Vava’u….. The short answer is: It’s impossible. And also impossible to rent one without a guide. So we had to come up with a plan B.

The logical plan B would have been chartering a small yacht. They are easily available. Though none of us is a boatie, and we didn’t fancy learning in an area with plenty of reefs, shallow areas, and the potential of ending up with a big bill in case we beach it. Hence, plan C was hatched….

Dream Beach Tonga
Dreams can differ from reality....

We had access to two inflatable WindSUPs. Not the cheap basic ones, but some nice 11’2″ Starboard Touring SUPs with a center fin which – according to the brochure “enables you to sail upwind”. Add a single rig each, and a paddle for no wind days. Sweet! They would fit in the plane from New Zealand to Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga. From there to Vava’u we would take the ferry (as the small domestic planes would not be able to transport the boards, our luggage and the rigs), and then we could start our boardpacking adventure! 3 weeks sailing and SUPing, exploring uninhabited islands. We would be unsupported and completely independent, drinking coconuts and finding wild pawpaw trees. Sounds awesome! What could possibly go wrong!?!?

We planned and prepared our trip thoroughly: 

Map Vava'u
Our map

Map – tick. It had a scale, showed (possibly) all the islands including their names, and it had even some reefs marked out on it! We were not too stressed about having a proper marine chart, as our boards only have a draft of less than 30cm. We won’t have any trouble with reefs…. Yeah right.

Test pack – tick. We have enough dry bags for everything we intend to take. Tent, stove, sleeping bags,….. We are planning to travel as light as possible, as we will need a few supplies to keep us independent for 2-3 weeks. Especially drinking water will be hard to come by. But we should be fine supplementing that with coconut water – it’s the tropics after all!

WindSUP Tonga, Water Nomads - test packing at home
Test packing at home
WindSUP Tonga, Water Nomads
Do they still float? Just....

Are the boards still floating with all that gear on board? We tested them in a quiet area one calm winter day in Auckland Harbour, and yes, they still are! And there is even room to stand! That’s a bonus! We didn’t try them windsurfing – we weren’t too keen to make a fool of ourselves in front of everyone. She’ll be alright, we cross that bridge when we get to it. 

A month later, we were on the plane to Tonga. 

Sunset Tonga, Vava'u

Tonga is a stunning experience, where “Tonga Time” becomes very quickly your reality. The more you try to rush things, the longer they will take….. We learned that very quickly. Fortunately we had 3 weeks off work, so there was room to relax into “Island Time”. 

Our plan was to take the ferry from Tongatapu (the main island in Tonga) to Vava’u, as the inflatable WindSUPs, rigs and general luggage were too big to realistically fit in the small domestic planes. However, on arrival we discover the ferry was out of commission after hitting a reef the previous week and losing a rudder somewhere…. so we started the mission of trying to hitch a ride on a yacht (150 odd nautical miles). 

Our ride Okeanos Aotearoa
Our ride Okeanos Aotearoa

It took us a whole week to organise. Most cruisers either had no room or were planning to stay a few weeks half way up in the Ha’apai Island group. Eventually we managed to get a ride on Okeanos Aotearoa, a traditional waka, captained by Aunufo with her crew of 3 young boys.

In the days leading up to our departure we learned from the host at our hostel and other locals that Aunufo is a legend on her own. She is the first Tongan female captain, kind of the real-life Moana. She previously sailed that same waka to San Francisco and several times to New Zealand, teaching young Pacifica the traditional way of seafaring and navigation. If you could choose anyone to sail on a traditional waka through the islands of Tonga, it would be her!

WindSUP Tonga, Water Nomads - Capt'n Aunufo
Capt'n Aunufo

Our day of departure was set for Sunday, 12 o’clock. That was a bit of an unusual time, as in Tonga nothing happens on a Sunday. No shops are open, no restaurant, nothing. You are not allowed to do any work, exercise, go for a swim or a bike ride on a Sunday. Sunday is reserved for church, eating and spending time with the family. But well, maybe travelling fell under a different rule….. 

So on Sunday, we arrived at the boat late morning – there was nobody there. 12 o’clock came and went, still nobody around. 2pm, and one of the boys arrived, but spoke no English. However we were able to now move our gear onto the boat (promising) and yet still waited. And waited. And waited. Around 5pm most of the crew was on board, but nobody made any effort of casting off the lines. The cultural and language barrier didn’t make it any easier to find out what was going on – we didn’t want to be rude and impatient. 

Our voyage from Tongatapu to Vava'u on board of Okeanos
Our voyage from Tongatapu to Vava'u on board of Okeanos

It seemed to us that Aunufo was keen to leave and make the most of the favourable wind and weather, but nothing happened. We eventually worked out at dusk what the problem was: you weren’t allowed to travel on a Sunday neither, and 12 o’clock, our departure time, was meant to be midnight!  However, as soon as the light went down, we broke the rules and snuck out of the port under cover of darkness, 9pm.

The 2 nights and 2 days on Okeanos were an unforgettable experience. We were a full part of the crew, eating with them and sharing the watches. Bevan was partnered up with one of the (more experienced) boys, who didn’t speak any English, my watches were with Aunufo. 3 hours on, 6 hours off. The two other lesser experienced boys took the third shift.

After a night sailing, we reached the Ha’apais at first light and spend the day navigating through stunning tropical islands with white sandy beaches and palm trees. The way tropical islands should look. Humpback whales were occasionally popping up beside the boat, giving us company for a while. 

Being a traditional waka, everything on board was manual. Yes, there was a small (solar powered) engine for emergencies and a GPS for navigation, but those instruments were merely for backup. The rudder was a long tiller, which constantly needed to be manhandled, no auto pilot or automatic steering. Any manoeuvre or adjustment of the sails meant all-hands on deck, as there were no winches, only wooden blocks to secure the sail once it did get adjusted. The images give you a bit of an idea, but they don’t really give it justice!

During the night, we had another stretch of open water ahead. The stars were just absolutely unbelievable. No light around us, no noise apart from the boat slowly making its way north. 

Come morning, we arrived at the first islands of Vavau’u. You can imagine, how excited we were to finally see our playground for the next 2 weeks! Excitement turned into shock pretty quickly: Those islands weren’t what we expected at all! 20m high vertical rock walls stretching directly out of the ocean, like mushrooms. How in earth were we supposed to land and camp on those islands? We also knew that if we want to change between paddling and windsurfing, we possibly needed a beach to rig the sails (without losing vital parts of our gear). 

Arriving in Vava'u
Our first impression of Vava'u

The good news was, that not all those islands were rocky fortresses, only about 50%. The bad news was, that our map didn’t show which ones were sandy, and there was no easy way of finding out except for going there and having a look!

But what is the point of an adventure without problems to solve….

We pulled into the port in Neiafu and found ourselves a hostel for the night. 

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The crew, Okeanos Aotearoa
The crew, Okeanos Aotearoa

Our Tonga Adventure

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