The Tonga/New Zealand Problem


We've been having a lot of fun out here, but there is one problem nagging us (me) since we reached the Marquesas. What are we doing for Cyclone season?

When we left San Diego, we had grand plans in mind. We wanted to sail from San Diego => Cabo San Lucas => Galapagos Islands => Marquesas => Society Islands => Cook Islands => Tonga => Fiji => Vanuatu => New Caledonia => New Zealand. At the time we made this plan, we were still headlong in jobs that allowed us (at best) two weeks of vacation per year. With that reality in mind, having only two weeks in each of these island groups seemed fantastic. A two week vacation over and over again? That would have to be satisfying. But, there were several realities about sailing we hadn't wrapped our heads around: (1) there is a lot of boat administration that must be done in order to survive out here like acquiring diesel, parts for repairs, etc. (2) everything takes (much) longer than you anticipate; and (3) passage making takes a bit of recovery time.

By the time we reached the Marquesas, we were passage weary. We had spent 53 days of 90 at sea. The idea of leaving the Marquesas in a short two weeks was painful, especially after spending five full days on just Hiva Oa alone. We either could not or did not want to try to move through entire countries at a two week pace for the rest of this season. We also learned about the beautiful Tuamotus (remember Manihi and Fakarava?) and realized we had to add them to our list of destinations. So, we started trying to figure out how to reshuffle Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia into next season.

As fate would have it, we ran into some cruisers who knew some other cruisers who wanted to offload a cyclone rated mooring in Tonga. They had reserved their mooring months prior, but then after making the crossing to the Marquesas they realized they did not like open ocean sailing. They hired a captain to take their boat back to Mexico for them, leaving their Tonga mooring open for the picking. Could this be a good solution for us?

The deposit was only $140.00 and there was no cancellation penalty, so that seemed like a low price to pay to have options. We could see several benefits to mooring in Tonga. It would give us a better jumping off point for the next season to sail through Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu all the way North to Thailand by the end of the 2017 season. We would fly to New Zealand and Australia to travel by land while we wait out this Cyclone season. This way, we can still see all the places we want to see;, we would just shuffle the timing around a bit. In addition, we would not have to sail South to New Zealand, which is known as one of the stormier bits of sea in this part of the world. If you sail to New Zealand, you are guaranteed to hit at least one storm on the way there and on the way back when you sail North the next season. We know Sonrisa could handle the path (she's done it twice before), but it just sounds unpleasant. So, Tonga sounds great, right?

There is one large drawback to Tonga: it gets hit by at least one cyclone most years. Some years, it gets hit by multiple cyclones. Reading all the cruising guides, Va'avu Tonga is a "known hurricane shelter". Shaped like a snail-shell, it is supposed to be a protected area where boats can ride out all manner of horrible weather. There are a number of reports written by other cruisers indicating they had a good experience leaving their boat in Tonga, either on moorings or on land. We had talked to an old sailing-codger in Galapagos islands a while back who could not understand why we were moving so fast. His position was that many boats ride out cyclones/hurricanes in all parts of the world without problems: Florida, Mexico, etc. etc., and therefore, there is no reason why we have to push to get to New Zealand by the end of this season. Just store her properly and you will be fine. His experienced opinion (after doing two circumnavigations) was that the South Pacific deserved at least two sailing seasons of exploration. This made some bit of sense to us at the time. So, we tentatively reserved the mooring ball, and sailed on.

As time went on, I felt a bit of homesickness. It is rare to get this much time away from work. I am getting to explore the world, and it is amazing, but I am also a half a world away from my family and friends. The only thing that would make this year more perfect would be if I could spent a bit of time with family and friends, too. "Hey!" I think, "what if we spent half of November and all of December at home?" Then, I could cap off this perfect year seeing people I love, return Jan/Feb. to explore Australia, fly March/April to mountain bike New Zealand, then return to Sonrisa and sail her from Tonga to Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia at the start of the next sailing season. Perfect. We booked flights from Tonga to the U.S.

As we sailed forward, we met sailor after sailor. The conversation always goes like this: "Where are you from / How long have you been sailing / What are your plans for cyclone season?" When we respond that we are planning to keep her in Tonga, their friendly smile fades and then they grimace. "Yeah, we are heading to New Zealand." Then, some just edge away from us to end the conversation; others are more direct. "So, you are happy with leaving her in Tonga, huh? You know they get pretty rough weather every year?" Stubborn and compelled to forge his own way, Andrew smiles his smug smile and just says "Yeah, but it's a known hurricane hole." I, on the other hand, feel sick to my stomach.

There is risk anywhere we go. If we sail south, we could get stuck in a nasty storm, things could go wrong, Sonrisa could have problems or we could have problems. These risks are always there. A cyclone is a whole other can of worms. If we leave Sonrisa in Tonga, she is almost guaranteed to have to ride out a cyclone. Looking back now, I have no idea what made us think Tonga was a good idea. There is ringing in my ears, my brain hurts so much from trying to get a feel for what to do. I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. I make Andrew look into the cost of putting her on the hard (pulling her out of the water and lashing her down tightly on land) in Tonga. It shakes out like this:

(1) Cyclone rated mooring in Tonga: $140 per month + $50 per month for a "boat handler" to check on Sonrisa from time to time. Total of approximately $1200 for the season.

(2) Pulling her out of the water and lashing her on land in Tonga: $700 for haul out/in + $500 per month on a cyclone cradle with tie downs. A total of approximately $4,000 for the season.


(3) $750 per month for a marina in New Zealand, a total of approximately $5,000 for the season. Add to this option the loss of $1,400 plane tickets we bought to fly from Tonga to the US.

Now, we have three options, none of which seem great. Money is a consideration, but Sonrisa is a good friend who has protected us and cared for us all the way across the Pacific Ocean. I want to do what is best for her, and the difference between these storage options are a drop in the proverbial boat-ownership-bucket.

In addition to the logistics of this decision, I'm all wrapped up in my ego. At the beginning of this season, I said I would sail to New Zealand. I can't shake the feeling that by diverting to Tonga, I am selling myself out. We got ourselves settled into the Tonga decision while we were still fatigued from the Mexico => Galapagos passage and the Galapagos => Marquesas passage. No one else seems to be bothered by having to make this decision. All the other cruisers are just going to New Zealand.

On the other hand, life lined us up in Tonga for some reason or another. My mom always tells me "life takes you on the path you are supposed to go", and in some sense I agree. I like to work hard and do my best, then trust that the path I'm on. The question is: have we worked hard enough?

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