Nuku’alofa, Tonga and being brave (Tonga part 2)


Baby mangroves

Nuku’alofa, the capital city of Tonga, located on the island of Tongatapu, felt roaring in comparison to Vava’u. (Just wait till I tell you about Suva.) Because our arrival was delayed by a storm (a low pressure system that made the waves seem incredibly huge and dangerous to us students, but the pro crew weren’t phased by at all), the various programatic/school-like things planned fell apart a little bit. Despite that, we did make the best of our time there.

A trip to the Ministry of the Environment resulted in a small group of students visiting one site that’s part of a mangrove planting project along the edge of a large lagoon on the island. The project aims to reduce coastal erosion as well as involve local communities. After being raised  in a nursery, they are brought young mangrove plants are brought to the project location. Tonga has about 10 indigenous types of mangroves, each of which are better suited for different locations. If there is more water in the soil, one species will do, but if there is a lot of hibiscus and consequently a lot of shade, a different type will be planted.

On the cultural side of our studies, a bus tour if the island brought us to some cool archeological sites before bringing us to an incredible series of caves with freshwater. It’s a tucked-away swim spot just yards from a gorgeous beach. Even though we’re supposed to be studying environmental and cultural sustainability and learning about the histories and cultures of these islands, we somehow always find our way to a stretch of gorgeous sand and crashing water. While it’s not every day we postpone the rest of our afternoon plans for some surprise beach time, some afternoons I do need to remind myself that I’m technically at school.

The Seamans, looking very small on the pier.

The Seamans, looking very small on the pier.

We students streamed in to the caves, ducking under a low hanging entrance and winding around stalagmites and stalactites. Many somethings–maybe bats, maybe birds chattered all along the ceiling of the caves. (I think mostly birds. I could see their nests, but some students swear they saw bats.)

Very quickly, it was clear that these caves were not only a place to swim, but also a place for cliff jumping. Some folks, who I guessed were neighbors of the family who owned this land, had clambered up a pile of rock in the center of the cave and were jumping into the water from fairly high up. Something about the gloom of the cave, the jagged texture of the rock and the looming ceiling set some alarms off in my head. Maybe some folks have no trouble jumping from high places into bodies of water they are unfamiliar with, but that’s not me. I’ve passed up cliff jumping opportunities before because jumping from heights is scary. Like, I avoided the high dive when I was a kid, probably still would. Add in a close ceiling and plenty of dark rock just waiting for a bad landing. Well.


From the cave entrance looking out at the water.

Most of my fellow students didn’t have this hesitation. They dropped their packs, climbed up to a spot maybe 2 meters up or even to a spot 5 meters up, and jumped right in. I hovered, frozen, in the path to the lower ledge. Panicky. Trying to remind myself sternly that this was the only time I’d be here with these people, and I should just ignore all that fear and jump. But I couldn’t quite take those last few steps. Wonderful as our community on the ship is, my friends did not hesitate to encourage me when they realized I was nervous. Except, the prospect of having 30 separate people each individually tell me that I’ll regret not jumping into the water and then watching to see what I would do is just a touch overwhelming. So I left the cave. Retreated to the beach. Dropped my backpack, kicked off my Chacos, and waded into the water. Once it was past my knees I dived the rest of the way into the ocean. Immediately, I felt better. Lighter. Calmer. Water, as always, is a comfort.

Eventually, everyone else poured out of the cave, and I went back with a shipmate. I climbed to the low spot (because high dives are still way scary) and jumped into the water. Yes, it was fun and incredible and worth it. But fear and anxiety are real things. And not so easily ignored. And I’ve run into it a lot on this trip.

When the Seamans is on a consistent heel, I feel like my six year old self learning how to sail on a lake in Minnesota. It is very windy and our tiny boat is heeled over and the water is so close. Or once  when we were told about a low pressure system passing through the area and I remember how much I feared storms as a kid. A crew member remarked that “you will break before the ship does.” So I took a deep breath and trusted the boat.

In the caves, I took a deep breath and jumped into the water.

A brief sojourn to the Kingdom of Tonga, pt 1.

No one knew what to expect out of Tonga. Though I suspect few would have guessed that SEA’s first visit ever to Tonga could hold so many highlights of the voyage.

Upon arriving in Neiafu on the island of Vava’u sometime in the early afternoon, we all mustered up on the quarter deck, presumably to hear about the plan for the rest of the day. Little did us students expect to be given any free time on our very first day in Tonga. But, to our surprise, our captain let us loose for a couple of hours before dinner. The wharf we had docked alongside was nothing like the one in American Samoa. Here were were greeted with shipping containers and the sandy sometimes muddy surface of the small pier. At first, I was a little intimidated by the prospect of wandering in a city I really didn’t know much about besides having glanced at a few maps. I’d been so caught up in the sea and sailing part of preparing for the trip that I’d kind of neglected doing much reading about our specific ports–granted I’d learned about the history of the 5 countries in our voyage in class on shore.


Neiafu: a yacht hot spot

But so C, G, and I eventually went a wandering, our first steps into this new place made for a really lovely night. Pretty quickly, we all realized that we were going to immensely enjoy our time in Neiafu. One day was dedicated to talking to folks who work for the only environmental NGO in Tonga, called VEPA. They told us about the whale watching tourism that has sprung up in Vava’u while humpback whales migrate through the area and how this corner of the tourism industry grew up after a royal decree banning whaling about 50 years ago. But we also learned a lot about their community based conservation efforts. Some students were given the rare chance to join local women go gleaning in an intertidal area, while others checked out the forest preservation efforts going on around Mount Talou, the island’s little mountain. We all also had the chance to “help” conduct a reef survey looking for Crown of Thorns, which ultimately turned into a chance to snorkel in some gorgeous waters and observe first hand the beginning effects of coral bleaching.

On one of our last nights there, we welcomed a group of students onto the Seamans, many of them taking classes about navigation or computers or engineering. Their teacher had once been a boat’s engineer, so was very excited to see the engine room of our ship.

After giving them tours of the boat and sitting down to dinner, we broke out the ship’s instruments and our very own fiddle player started playing some tunes. What happened next was an incredible exchange of music. We played some of our favorite songs, and our Tongan guests sang us some songs too–some of which were gorgeous hymns and others of which were pop songs we recognized from the other side of the Pacific.

Just before it was time for our guests to leave, our fiddler offered to teach everyone a simple square dance. We circled up on the wharf and followed his instructions to circle round right, swing our partners round and round, and close up the circle. The spontaneous square dance was some kind of magic to see unfold. Language no barrier, just genuine desire to fully and sincerely share a moment with new friends.


View from the Queen’s Lookout

Later, on the ship, after leaving Vava’u, we got into a discussion about authenticity of experience. And how one can know that what they are seeing or learning of a different country is truly authentic. And you can’t. Not really. But you can be sincere and recognize sincere connections with others. And perhaps that is more important.

Dawn to Dusk

On the water, time, it seems, is a bit harder to hold onto. It’s easy to write about and reflect on goings on on shore, because life is divided easily into days and night. At sea, watches split and splice time, blurring moments and memories together. And I realize that I have not told you much about living on this ship, just the cool things I’ve seen and the sort of stuff taking up my thoughts. But, what does it mean to live on a sailing school vessel?

We students are divided into three watches, which rotate so someone is on watch at all times. Each watch also has a mate and an assistant scientist—you know, the ones who really know what they are doing. The watch rotation is such that you move through dawn and evening watch, afternoon watch and morning watch every three days. For instance, here’s what happened during a full twenty-four hour period about a week ago.

0030. Woken up this morning by Stu. I am reluctant to get up this morning. I contemplate what clothes I need for dawn watch. I have twenty minutes to get ready.

0040. I wander into the salon, nearly fully dressed. Harness in one hand, socks and rain boots in the other. Foulies, just in case and for wind protection, draped over an arm. I grab a granola bar (we have midnight snack waiting for the ongoing and off-going watches in the middle of the night) and wander to the doghouse. I read the night orders, put on my harness, and climb the ladder onto the quarter deck.

0050. The watch turns over. The watch before us tells us what is going on with the boat. Where we’re going (our course ordered and course steered). What we’re doing (starboard or port tack, what sails are up). What’s happening (what’s the weather like? Is there any traffic?). I am sent to lookout.

0100-0200. Stars tonight are gorgeous. Lookout’s a good time for thinking, stargazing, and singing.

0200-0300. I’m relieved at lookout. We’re motor sailing, so I pop down to the engine room for a few minutes, checking the dials on our main engine to make sure it’s happy. I plot our position on our chart, a dead reckoning based on our last position and the direction and distance we’ve moved since then. I make some coffee.

0300-0400. I take the helm. We’re steering 130° PCS (per ships compass). Though the sea state is pretty high, the fact that we’re motor sailing makes it slightly easier to steer. It’s cold though and plenty windy. 16-17° C.

0400-0500. I am relieved at the helm. I do another engine check. Plot another DR, help bring out galley mats, which had been brought on deck to be cleaned and to dry, back to the galley. I wake up the steward so she can start making breakfast.

0500-0600. I am back on lookout. The sun is trying to rise, though the stars still have a dim presence in the sky. By the end of the hour I’m quite cold. We’ve certainly left the tropics behind.

0600-0700. I am relieved at lookout again. One last engine check. I have a few minutes of free time. The watch changes. We do turnover and have a quick watch meeting—just a recap of what happened on deck and in lab.

0700. Breakfast. Finally. Blueberry pancakes, sausage and pineapple. We do the last of our dawn cleanup (cleaning bathrooms which we call “heads” and the showers, as well as sweeping the floors or “soles”).

0745-?. Sleep.

img_47680930 or 1030. I wake up and eventually drag myself out of my bunk. Either to do homework, shower, or workout, and eventually sit in the salon or on deck and talk with whoever is around.

1300. Lunch and then a nap or more homework or I go out to the headrig.

1430. We have class followed by a snack and more attempts to be productive.

1820. Dinner and time to get ready for watch,

1900. I’m back on watch, in the lab this time. There isn’t all that much to do now we’re near the end of the trip. We do a surface station—collect a bucket of water from the ocean surface and test the water samples for their pH, alkalinity, dissolved oxygen, nutrients, and chlorophyll-a. The lab is dark at night, especially today because we are setting up to run our chlorophyl-a samples and light can ruin the process. We three students and our assistant scientist talk as we set up the equipment needed for chl-a processing. A ship-wide game of Clue has started (everyone is assigned a target, who they have to get to a certain location on the boat with an assigned object. If they succeed, the have “killed” their target and move onto a new target), so the four of us are very wary of suspicious visitors to our lab. We go out to help deck set the tops’l, only to return to find our captain hiding in the dry lab hoping to eliminate his target.

0100 eventually rolls around. We are tired and a little silly. We do turn over and head out of the lab to join the rest of our watch on deck. It’s a clear night again and the stars shine brightly. And I know I will sleep well when I finally go down below to my bunk, but I linger for a minutes or so, gazing up and gazing out, so glad to be just there right then, and no where else.