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Autumn in Auckland

Westhaven Summer

It’s officially autumn here in the southern hemisphere. The days continue to be sunny and warm in Auckland. The locals tell us that this is very unusual, that they haven’t had a summer at all for the past several years. I think it might just be the typical Kiwi humbleness showing through again. We were led to believe that the weather here was terrible, blustery and cold every day, sideways rain. Maybe that’s just our newbie ignorance showing through. The season is early.

Truth be told, we’re all sideways when it comes to the seasons and can’t tell which month it is, which season we’re in exactly without consulting the calendar on a daily basis. You take it for granted how innate it is in your own hemisphere. Back home, March means daffodils coming up, Easter chocolates, fresh green leaves on the trees, longer days and more sun. Here, March means back to school, autumn leaves, rain squalls, crisper mornings. It feels like Halloween, and Thanksgiving, and Christmas carols are right around the corner, but they surely aren’t.

Holly bikes Auckland

Easter is coming up and I’m not sure (if I was the decorating kind anyway) if I should be scattering autumn leaves around the boat or Easter flowers. It just feels all wrong. But anyway, this will be our first winter in two years and we’re actually looking forward to turning on a heater again, donning our cozy fleeces and jeans. I’m not sure about the socks though, the “jandals” may have to stay all year.

One thing we do know is that this is the time of year that is buzzing with cruising excitement, wherever you happen to be on your boat. Over on the west coast of North America, boat crews are busy prepping and jumping off for the South Pacific. (It’s impossible for us to believe that it’s been exactly a year since we did the same!) In the Northwest, boats are getting ready for a summer shakedown then a boogie down the coast to Mexico in a few months. Even here in New Zealand it’s already time for the finishing touches of pricey refits to be completed and passages north, whether to Fiji, Tonga, or Tahiti to be charted out for April and May.

We nearly forgot about the joys of daysailing, especially how special it is to see the smile on a first-timer's face as the wind begins to pull us along.

We nearly forgot about the joys of daysailing, especially how cool it is to see the smile on a first-timer’s face as the wind begins to pull us along.

We can feel all this energy, even though we sit in a quiet marina, many of the Kiwi boats having been put away for the winter already in a winding-down season of furious sailing in the Hauraki Gulf. We want to be there too, in that crazy haze of stress-excitement-joy that is the weeks leading up to a big departure. I think we may have become addicted to that feeling, and then the one after where you are on your way to somewhere new and exciting aboard the little ship you lovingly prepared. Now, to be staying still for a while feels just like when you step onto an escalator that is out of order, when you expect your body to be carried upwards but instead there is just that lurching feeling and your legs feel heavy as they plod up the stairs.

We’ve been told that the long Easter weekend is the last hurrah for sailing, kind of like Labor Day weekend in the States. We’ve actually spent most of our weekends off the boat, or at least out and about exploring the city or the nearby beaches and forests. Looks like we might have to go out sailing too. Winter is on her way, so the calendar says.

We spent a weekend "baching it" at wild and gorgeous Piha beach. Less than an hour's drive from the city it feels like a world away. But New Zealand is like that and that's why we love her.

We spent a weekend “baching it” at wild and gorgeous Piha beach on the Tasman sea. Less than an hour’s drive from the city it feels like a world away. But New Zealand is like that and that’s why we love her.

Our little "bach" at Piha beach. The girls are sandy and wet and running for the bathtub soon to be filled with hot water and bubbles. The simple things are the best.

Our little “bach” at Piha beach. The girls are sandy and wet and running for the bathtub soon to be filled with hot water and bubbles. This simple little nearly 100-year-old house felt like a mansion to us.

Yesterday was the first day of autumn. I think change is in the air.

Yesterday was the first day of autumn. I think change is in the air.

Raft-UP: Staying Sane in a Floating Closet

Best friends, 99% of the time.

I’ve just joined in with the Raft-UP writing group; each month a group of sailing bloggers muses about a specified topic which is a great way for readers to get a whole bunch of different perspectives on aspects of the sailing life. This month we’re writing about maintaining relationships onboard our boats, which amounts to getting along in a space the size of a large walk-in closet, oftentimes with nothing around but miles-deep water.

This is not easy.

I’m not going to lie to you and say things like “we love living so close together each and every day” and “our girls never fight, they are always the best of friends.” That is just silly. We all fight on certain days, we all need our space at times. Michael and I have lived aboard sailboats together for the better part of the past 14 years and have become pretty adept at giving each other space (whether that means physical or mental) for a few hours when either of us needs it. Even though we need a break from each other at times, after only a few hours apart we miss each other terribly and reunite with a freshness that causes us each to spill over with all the news that the other has missed out on.

But sailing with two young kids has added a whole other complexity to the “getting along in tight quarters” conundrum. The problem is that kids need their space too and coordinating the needs of four separate people’s space and time to recharge has proven to be the most challenging aspect of sailing as a family.

Like any family ashore, it can be difficult to find the balance, as well as the timing, of having family time together as well as personal space and time for our own interests. We recognize that we are a family of introverts (although time is proving that Holly might be the first extrovert in generations!) and it is essential that each of us takes the alone time necessary to recharge our spirits.

Unlike a lot of families ashore we find that we have ample time together as a family but have trouble getting the necessary time in to ourselves. The biggest difficulty is proving to be the actual timing of each of us getting some recharging time. Just because I really need a few hours to myself doesn’t mean that the rest of the family does (more often than not it seems these are the times they need my attention the most!) The girls might be working happily on a project or reading on their own but sometimes that has to be interrupted to make an appointment or get to a shop or office before it closes. What happens is the time we need by ourselves gets pushed into the future until it gets to a critical point and tempers explode.

Leah and Michael spend a memorable day hiking together (Kitekite Falls, Waitakere Ranges, NZ)

Leah and Michael spend a memorable day hiking together (Kitekite Falls, Waitakere Ranges, NZ)

Over the past 18 months, here’s what we’ve been working on to make sure our family/alone time is balanced:

We take the time to recharge on our own rather than putting it off. As I mentioned before, it’s all too easy to put off alone time when there are so many amazing things to do and see together as a family while cruising. But we’ve learned that you can’t do it all; I hate missing out on beach explorations or snorkeling expeditions with the girls but find that I’m a much happier mom if every now and then I let Michael take them exploring for a few hours while I read or write or just putter around the boat on my own for a bit. We even have code words for this now: I tell everyone I need to “clean” and Michael says he needs to do “engine maintenance” and the rest of the family is happy to get out of the way for the afternoon.

Ditto with dates. Michael and I usually get out on a “date” about once a year and frankly, this is just not good enough. We need time with just the two of us to connect to each other and recharge our relationship as a couple, not only as parents. It’s difficult though to find people we trust with the kids since our neighbors are always changing as we travel. We’ve found that if we are presented with the opportunity to leave the girls with trusted friends for an evening to jump on it as we may not have the chance next week. As the girls get older too they are having more opportunities for slumber parties away and time with their own friends. Ahhhh!

Michael and I each need to spend time with Holly/Leah on their own. Recently we’ve been seeing the value of spending “alone time together” which means that Michael spends time with just Leah and I spend time with Holly and vice versa. The girls (and their parents) truly treasure this time to connect individually without the rambunctiousness that can happen when the four of us are all together. The girls don’t have to compete for anyone’s attention – she gets it 100% for a few hours and we all treasure these special times.

Helping the girls respect that her sister needs time on her own. With the girls getting older, this seems to be coming up more and more. For example, Leah is now an avid reader and enjoys spending quiet time in her bunk looking at books. Of course, Holly loves to hang out with Leah in her bed and look at books too but we’ve had to explain to her that Leah just needs some quiet time on her own. The corollary of this is that the girls have learned to state “I need some alone time!” which usually is only a few minutes in which to recharge while we respect her wishes.

Acknowledging that we are all going to have disagreements/tempers/heated emotions, but we need to deal with these respectfully. When we don’t get the time we need to recharge/connect/relax/be heard tempers can get pretty ugly around here. All four of us are working on respectful signals to use whether it’s time by ourselves we need, time with a parent or just pure-fun time with all four of us.

Of course, now that we are back in working/school mode we are finding plenty of time for ourselves and have joined the rest of society in missing our time together as a family.


Mom's Night Out, Carnaval de La Paz, Mexico (OK, the kids were around somewhere; the dads were in charge)

Mom’s Night Out with Windy of Del Viento, Carnaval de La Paz, Mexico (OK, to be truthful the kids were running around somewhere nearby on the dark & crowded streets; the dads were in charge)


Check out what other Raft-UP writers have to say this month:

Transitioning to the world of to-dos

Wondertime girls at Roberton Island, Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Wonder. Time.

I realized yesterday what it is that has been driving me crazy lately. Anxiety has been creeping into my soul once again, a sense of hurry that starts as soon as I open my eyes each morning. The feeling that there is not enough time in the day. Going to bed each night thinking of what I didn’t get done that day and wondering if I can get it done tomorrow.

It’s my new to-do list.

One of our most favorite places in Auckland so far? The library!

One of our most favorite places in Auckland so far? The library!

I haven’t had a to-do list for well over a year now and as we head out of cruising mode and into – what? – work/school/errand/shop/whatever-you-call-this-not-moving mode I’ve starting making the lists that ruled my life before we spent all our days exploring little bits of land by sea. It seems there’s a lot to do to fit in to city life, and more importantly, make and spend money which is mostly what every metropolis seems about. I’ve got lists of things to buy, places to explore, homeschool activities to sign up for, items to complete for our work and student visas, books to read, blog posts to write, boat projects, appointments to make….

Did I not have these things before? What has changed exactly? Sure, some days were busy during our time in the islands. When we got to town there were provisions to buy, laundry to drop off, ice-cream cones to eat. Emails to write. Um. Hmm. I guess that’s it. Must be why I hadn’t had to jot down any tasks – there really weren’t any.

But we must have eaten a lot of ice-cream because here we are working on that cruising kitty again. And doing that in a new country requires a bit of red tape. And the price of not having a to-do list for a while simply means that quite a few things just got pushed into the future and we’ve finally met up with them. Then again, I just like making lists and tend to jot down any old thing that crosses my mind to do.

But then those lists tend to rule my days: I check my daily tasks in the morning and plan out how I’m going to get them done. The girls beg for pancakes but I make oatmeal again because pancakes take too long to make and clean up. I feel anxious when the girls want to get out the paint when I’m planning on heading out in an hour to the laundromat. Everyone wants to walk to the playground but I am struggling with the fact that I have 10 starred emails in my inbox…. By the end of the day I am exhausted and – of course – I check my to-do list and defer the four undone items for tomorrow.

Pt. Erin Community Pool

We love hot summer December days at the pool

One of the lessons that cruising has taught me is to take the lessons that cruising has taught me and bring them to the life we live when we are not moving. This one: that the best days are not the ones where I get the most things done. The best days are the ones without a list leading the way, where we just let the day unfold and explore the world however we feel that day and let whatever happens, happen. They are the days when we take the time to wonder.

We had such a day last weekend: Saturday morning dawned with a list of things we needed to do to go visit friends who live several hours up the coast for the weekend. We packed, made a treat to bring, showered. Out in the parking lot we found a screw embedded in the front tire of our car and drove out to a tire shop on the way out of the city (resulting in four brand-new tires to replace the bald ones). At noon, we found ourselves sitting in northbound traffic with the rest of Auckland’s residents heading out for a long New Year’s weekend. After taking nearly two hours to travel what normally takes 20 minutes, we phoned our friends and regretfully made plans to visit after the holidays. We felt terrible.

Nothing to do!It was a beautiful sunny summer December day so we headed over to the community pool for an afternoon swim. On the way home we got an invite from some new friends for a BBQ dinner at their Auckland home and drove over that evening. The wonderful visit and dinner culminated with a night stroll under the full moon to a park reserve near their home. We walked in the dark into the trees which led to rock caverns that were illuminated with the tiny fairy-lights of glowworms. It was absolute magic, an unforgettable evening for everyone. I couldn’t have planned that day if I tried and tried.

So this morning when I woke up I did the best thing I could think of to reduce all the weight these to-dos have been putting on my soul and our days: I started deleting them.

The view from our cockpit - our new playground!

The view from our cockpit – our new playground!

With her rust stains, chipped paint and bowsprit, Wondertime sticks out like a sore thumb amongst all the other slick and fast New Zealand boats. But we love her anyway.

Here’s Wondertime in her new Auckland slip. With her rust stains, chipped paint and bowsprit, she sticks out like a sore thumb amongst all the other slick and fast New Zealand boats. But we love her anyway.


Familiar But Foreign

Our first days in New Zealand were not very glamorous, or should I say glamourous, but it has been thrilling to be here even though our first orders of business were to get started on our long list of chores that have piled up during our time lazing around in tropical paradise. We’re in rural country up here in Opua with miles kilometers kilometres of roads winding crazily through rolling green hills dotted with sheep exactly like we’d pictured it here. You can’t really do much without a car so that’s the first thing we bought (after plunking our $2 coins in the shower meters, our first hot showers since Niue in August). We picked up a sweet late 90s Subaru (this may be something like our 10th Subaru) and immediately drove to the grocery store where we gleefully filled our cart with fresh NZ strawberries, blueberries, apples, avocados, zucchini, and bottles and bottles of cheap delicious wine. Which I thoroughly enjoyed after the 10 loads of laundry finished this week….

Meet “Kiwisube”…she blends in.

Beautiful spring produce, all NZ grown

While walking around dainty little Kerikeri we felt a little scruffy, even for laid-back Kiwi standards, and made the hair salon our next stop where all four of us got a little snip snip. Here’s Holly getting her first haircut ever:

Holly’s curls get an adjustment

Our cruising kitty is not really set up for 1st world living so we pretty much had to get on the job-search program right off the bat. Thanks to old cruising friends who lived in Auckland for several years after sailing here, Michael had appointments set up with several IT recruiters practically moments after we tied off our docklines. As you may have guessed, one of the tricks of this lifestyle is to combine the many chores that seem to pile up with pleasure, so we took a field trip down to the metropolis of Auckland last week.

“Look! It’s a school of sheep!” -Holly

It was a grey, drizzly three-hour drive to the city from Opua and as we crossed over the bridge into downtown Auckland we had complete deja-vu: with the weather, the sailboats scattered across the waterways of the city we could have sworn we were driving into our hometown of Seattle. But not the Seattle of today, more like the Seattle of my childhood: New Zealand’s largest city has half of Seattle’s population and although we were warned about all the terrible traffic, we found ourselves cruising easily through the downtown in the middle of the workday. The city was incredibly clean and largely populated with small, local businesses. We grabbed coffees and warm milks at a hip cafe in Ponsonby and then toured the nearby Westhaven marina which we hope will be home soon.

Wondertime family in Auckland

While Michael was at his meetings the girls and I window-shopped and lunched at a tiny sushi restaurant together. We gleefully visited every bookstore in a 5-block radius.

Sushi lunch in Auckland with my girls

Holly happily buried in books

This week we are still in Opua, waiting for the arrival of our new damper plate which is being shipped in from the U.K. We hope to get the boat down to Auckland by Christmas, but in the meantime are enjoying kicking around in Northland. We drove to Whangarei for the day and explored the local parks which included the beautiful Whangarei falls and a lovely Kauri forest. On the way we also toured an ancient cave which is populated by glowworms – one of the many life forms unique to New Zealand. Leah is fascinated with caves and hopes to do more challenging spelunking in the future.

About to enter the amazing Kawiti glowworm caves

Wondertime girls at Whangarei Falls

It’s been wonderful to be back in the land of forests again. At first, it felt like we were back home in the Pacific Northwest. But then the details begin to come into focus. Instead of giant Douglas Firs there are ancient Kauri trees. The song of Tui birds ring out through the treetops, marvelous tree ferns tower over our heads. The greens everywhere are more vivid shades than we’ve seen before. It smells like the forests we remember, damp and mossy, but there are scents in there of spices and flowers that are all new to us.

We visit the fantastic giant Kauri trees of the Puketi forest

A tree fern

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of all the beautiful new things this lovely country has to offer.

Big Wind at Big Mamas

If there’s one thing we’ll always remember Tonga for, its the wind here. Glassy calm days, at least during this southern hemisphere springtime, are few and far between. If nothing else, it really makes us regret not putting a wind generator on the boat.

Anchored off Big Mama’s in Nuku’alofa, Tongatapu is not exactly the ideal place to ride out a major tropical depression. The bay is huge, 1.5 miles south to downtown Nuku’alofa and 5 miles of fetch to the west of us. The good thing is that the holding here is superb; it took quite a bit of muscling to crank our Rocna out of the sandy muck when the blow was over. There is an inner harbor with a breakwall you can stern tie to, Tahiti style, but we kept picturing boats piling up like dominoes as bow anchors dragged in the undoubtedly fouled harbour and chose to ride it out in the anchorage. (Thankfully, all the cruising boats whether in the harbour or anchored out  survived just fine with mostly just frazzled nerves.)

The photo to the right was taken on Tuesday afternoon. Here, you see cruisers playing Scrabble and riding the rope swing. One the far right side, just out of the picture are people swimming, taking shelter from the sweltering heat. Behind the picnic fale is a ping-pong table and volleyball court where we also spent time waiting for the weather to arrive. Mostly what we’re doing is talking about just that, the weather. A number of us were halfway to Minerva and turned around, wondering if this thing was going to materialize after all. Was it going to pass right over us as the models were predicting? How will the boats underway hold up? When will our weather window finally arrive? We are all very very anxious to finally reach N Zed.

The predicted tropical depression indeed arrived the following day. The typical SE wind shifted to the north as the depression approached Tongatapu but the wind was no biggie at around 15 knots. We sat below listening to boats underway south of us check into the Drifter’s net. Friends were starting to see winds in the 30-40 knot range. Our emotions were conflicted: we were very glad that we weren’t out in it but at the same time worried for the comfort and safety of the other vessels out there.

While we were reveling in the warmth of our safely anchored home, we heard the wind pick up outside, suddenly. Michael ran up to grab a bucket we’d left on the side deck. The next thing I knew he was shouting down at me “It’s blowing 50 knots out here!”

Here’s the story from our log book:

Noticed wind picking up here a few minutes before 1800 then suddenly a wall of wind hits us along with absolutely deluging rain. Can’t see a thing outside – everything white, spray and mist covering the surface of the water. Run around turning on GPS (off because listening to radio and it causes interference), depth sounder, engine. Boat absolutely pummeled by wind. Solar panels break free from tie down lines, flapping up and down. Dinghy hoisted alongside boat flies up against rigging as we’d feared it’d do. Wind hits starboard side, heels WAY over to port, rail underwater! Shit flying across boat below (totally messy from day in – not prepared for this type of blast at all!)

Wind then catches us on port and stuff flies in other direction, including HP laptop onto floor! M. finally gets oriented and motors into wind, but anchor appears to have held (have all 300’ of chain out in 60’ of water). Yell out to girls in forecabin if they are OK, they yell back they are fine, both in Holly’s bed. Tell them to stay put. M. is outside, soaking wet, securing solar panels and lines that got washed over. Rain leaking in ports, pours down back hatch when I open it to look out at wall of white.

Wind shifting from N to S to W so quickly. It’s probably only 5 minutes of crazy wind then calms to ~25 from W. Boats talking back and forth on VHF; everyone OK and in good spaces still. Aleris reports highest windspeed was 74 knots! Lightening now passing directly overhead, very scary.

Get busy cleaning up crazy mess now that worst is over – broken glasses on floor, entire bookshelf dumped on floor in forward cabin, toys, food, all covered with layer of rainwater. Counters had been emptied, cupboards flown open that we latch while sailing. Incredible!

Help M. secure sun cover flapping around but huge lightening flash overhead and we quickly jump below. Girls have moved into our bunk, playing with puppets and flashlights (now getting dark). They are just giddy with all the excitement.

What happens next is really eerie and kinda freaks out all of the boat crews. The wind dies down within an hour and it is completely still. The wind ceases, the sky clears and the stars come out. Like nothing had happened at all. Apparently the low passed right over Tongatapu after all and here we are right in the middle of it. What would happen next?

By 2 am however the wind indeed picked up again, and right from the west too as was predicted. With 5 miles of fetch the waves built quickly and by daylight Wondertime was bucking up and down unpleasantly in the 4-6 foot wind waves. We had 30-45 knots the whole livelong day. While I was cooking breakfast there was a pop and a shudder at the bow: our snubber had parted after holding our anchor chain for nearly 18 months straight. Michael and I spent the next two hours fashioning a replacement bridle-type snubber (our snubber attaches at the waterline to a bow eye and had simply exploded due to age and/or strain). The strain on our bow was immense and we had to get the replacement snubber lines just right so they wouldn’t chafe on our bowsprit whisker stays or bobstay. Long story short, it was a long long day constantly checking the snubber for chafe while being doused with sea water spraying over the plunging bow.

Happily the wind started to subside by dinner and we awoke the next morning to another peaceful sunny day with only a light SE wind rippling the water around us. We made it.

Tonight, the crews of at least 15 boats gathered again at Big Mama’s. While the shorter crews of the six (!) kid boats here chased each other around the palm trees, this time the adults chatted about how we’d fared during the big blow and celebrated making it through safely. And of course talked about the coming weather: it looks like a fantastic week to sail to New Zealand has finally arrived and all of us will be heading out tomorrow or Monday. We wished each other good luck and made plans for our reunion in Opua.

Both our bow snubber and our Tongan courtesy flag have seen enough wind, thank you. Besides these two items, the only other casualties onboard were two glass drinking glasses that broke. Our dinghy, solar panels and even our cheap old HP laptop (which I’ve wanted to throw to the floor myself many times) survived just fine. We later learned that the 75 knot wind blast was likely a microburst.

Lost in the Islands of Tomorrow

Why hello there.

I’ve stepped out from underneath the palm trees we’ve been lounging under here in the Vava’u Group of the Kingdom of Tonga for a few minutes as it’s rather time to send you an update.

First off, the most exciting thing to happen on our sail here was that we got to skip Thursday and sailed straight into Friday which the girls where thrilled about (being Friday movie night after all). Somewhere along the way here we crossed the International Dateline moving us a day ahead of all of you back in the U.S. While you’ll be waking up to Friday morning it will already be Saturday here and well into the weekend.

Which means nothing here to us, of course, excepting that I have to remember to get to the amazingly fresh and gorgeous (and we’re talking California-gorgeous) produce market before it closes by noon as it does on Saturdays. Other than that, we’re living the old cruiser’s life of “every night’s a Friday night, every day’s a Saturday.”

This amazing scattered group of islands – there are 60 of them – are nestled together like puzzle pieces in an area only 16 x 18 nautical miles. You weave through them, around them, through channels and there’s a spot to anchor about every few miles. The whole group is surrounded by reefs that keep out any annoying ocean swell and it’s like sailing and anchoring in the Gulf Islands again. Only with palm trees and turquoise water and the soft warm breezes I think I’ve written about before. You can reach just about every anchorage in two hours or so. In the past two weeks, we’ve been to three of them.

This place doesn’t affect everyone the same way, but to us, it’s called us to slow down, stop for a while and just experience the life and place around us without the sense of movement we’ve become so accustomed to. Our first few days in Neiafu, the main town here, were spent catching up with boatloads of friends, some of whom we hadn’t seen for months. Just about everyone heading west passes through Tonga sooner or later and there have been grand kid-boat reunions here.

With Wondertime loaded down with delightful fresh produce from the local market, the likes we haven’t seen since La Cruz, we headed out to the islands. Or, one island in particular, that of our amazing longtime friends Ben and Lisa who we met in California while we were all on our way to Mexico in 2002 and sailed all over with that winter. They continued on to Tonga in their boat Waking Dream in 2004 and have stayed here ever since, opening up a number of businesses over the years and becoming a true part of the community. They currently have a lease on an adorable 2.5 acre island where they are busy living and building a small restaurant and eco-lodging amongst the palm trees. In their spare time they run the non-profit Regatta Vava’u coming up here in a few weeks.

We’ve been anchored off their island for the past week and have had a blast watching them get to know our new crew members as well as hearing their stories of life on a Tongan island. The girls, of course, adore Ben and Lisa as well as their island home. Countless hours have been spent just talking and pontificating and reminiscing and watching the palm trees sway. We’ve shared many meals together with Ben and Lisa, their local friends, and our cruising friends that have stopped by as well. We’ve danced under the clear light of the full moon while Ben – still the party king — spun tunes on his DJ gear. Michael has helped out with several of the countless projects underway on the island. The girls and I have napped in a hammock. We’ve read, daydreamed, had scavenger hunts. The beach has been combed for shells, many times. The girls have swung on the “hip ball.” We’ve messed around in boats. One clear night, we sat on a roof watching enormous flying foxes swoop overhead in the dark and listened to the crickets sing.

You never know what will pass by when you stop and watch and listen for a while.

The Wondertime Girls in Neiafu, Vava’u

17 Reasons Why We Think Niue is Brilliant

After nine days at sea, we found the tiny island of Niue, the only bit of land for hundreds of miles around. It was 2 am when we arrived off the main town of Alofi and picked up one of the moorings maintained by the Niue Yacht Club. Our night approach was easy: Niue no longer has a fringing reef and there’s no danger of running into anything other than the island itself. Niue is a former atoll that’s had it’s entire coral center pushed 150 feet or so straight up into the sky. The island’s edges are now littered with caves, chasms, and crystal clear pools before what remains of the surrounding coral reefs drops steeply into the ocean for thousands of feet. We were excited to see this petite island nation for ourselves, and beginning when we woke up in the morning a few hours after our arrival we found many reasons to love this island.

1. Niue’s Clear Blue Sea

Niue is affectionately known as “The Rock” as the whole island is basically a huge chunk of coral limestone. It has no rivers or streams and very little soil resulting in little to no runoff. What this means is that the waters surrounding Niue are absolutely crystal clear. When we looked around on our first morning on Niue we were awestruck by the clarity of the water around us. We could see the bottom 120 feet below our keel! The strikingly pure shades of blue of the seas around Niue are the most beautiful and otherworldly we’ve ever seen.

2. The Wharf Crane

Before we arrived here, we’d heard horror stories about Niue’s wharf. We’d heard it was pummeled by swell, you had to climb a slippery, rickety ladder 50 feet up and then you had to use a cranky old crane to actually hoist your dinghy up after you. I have no idea how these rumors get started. Niue’s wharf is the best we’ve encountered in the Pacific: all four of us can easily step right off the dinghy onto a sturdy concrete staircase and climb the five stairs with good handholds all the way up. The crane is a blast to use: you simply hook it onto your dinghy’s lifting bridle, use the controls to hoist the dinghy up into the air and swing it over onto a wheeled trolley, then park the dinghy amongst the others lined up on the wharf nearby. Truly the most fun dinghy-parking experience so far.

2. The Check-In Process

Right after we hoisted our dinghy onto the wharf for the first time, we were met right next to the crane by two customs agents, each of which had us fill out a short form. 10 minutes later we were driven by Keith, the super friendly and helpful local SSCA representative, up the road to the police station (with a quick tour of the town of Alofi on the way). Here we filled out another short form and we each got our passports stamped. Check-in done, literally minutes after we’d begun the process.

3. The Niue Yacht Club

We left the police station after completing our check-in and wandered a few hundred meters down the road to the Niue Yacht Club. This place deserves a list of it’s own but I’ll just have to start by saying how impressed we are with the 14 heavy-duty moorings the club maintains (it is nearly impossible to anchor here due to the depths and coral-choked sea floor). The mooring balls are even covered with reflective tape to make them easy to find for boats coming in at night like we did. The club itself in town is a wonderful, comfortable place to hang out with very friendly owners, a huge book exchange, free internet, a fridge stocked with cold beers and sodas, and potluck events.

4. Fish & Chips

Niue is a “self-governing nation with free association with New Zealand.” What we hoped this meant was excellent fish and chips and we are happy to report that indeed we enjoyed amazing fried wahoo and chips washed down with New Zealand beer on our very first day here. Yum.

5. A Little Piece of New Zealand

Besides the fish & chips, it has been a thrill to experience a little preview of what New Zealand holds for us here in Niue. Everyone on the island speaks English (with a Kiwi accent to boot!), which is thrilling after our Spanish didn’t help us much in French Polynesia in terms of getting to know local people. Most of the food products in the grocery stores are from NZ and you have to be careful when crossing the street as it’s left-side driving here!

6. The Playground

During our sail from Maupiti to Niue we read through the Niue chapter in our Lonely Planet South Pacific several times (it is short). I noted that there was reportedly a playground in Alofi and informed Holly of such. Each day after, several times each day she asked me to confirm that we were indeed going to an island with a playground. Happily we found the reported playground just south of the main town and although simple and sun-worn both girls were thrilled to climb and swing and just play here. Holly gives Niue a thumbs-up.

7. History

Once you walk up the hill from the wharf and set off down the main road you can’t help but notice the graves. They are scattered all along the road, all the way around the island. They are varied: there are old, broken unidentified stone ones, there are new ones with fancy headstones with pictures and stories of the occupant. Many have silk flowers draped across them. Some have whole structures built on top to protect the graves. There are a great many more graves than people on this island that struggles to maintain it’s population: the elderly lost to the graves, the youth lost to New Zealand where everyone here has citizenship. The graves are not creepy at all though, even though they are everywhere. Rather it adds to the air of ancient history that is evident everywhere on Niue, both of the island’s geology and also the stories of the families that have lived here for a thousand years. Powerful reminders of time passing.

8. The Friendliest Island in the World

With a fledgling tourist industry, visitors are still novel in Niue. Each time we walk through town we are stopped by local residents who ask where we are from and how we got here and they are truly interested. Everyone waves as they drive by, whether you pass by on foot or car. Last Sunday we wanted to get down to Avatele Beach on the southwest corner of the island so had the girls stick their thumbs out. Within minutes we had a ride from a local fellow. It turned out he wasn’t really heading that way though and was planning on turning right around and driving back to town after dropping us off 15 minutes down the road.

9. Washaway Cafe

What’s not to love about a bar where you help yourself to ice-cold New Zealand beer from a fridge and write down what you took on a piece of paper? And has burgers topped with beets and fried eggs? And has a snorkeling beach right in front? And is the only place on the island open on Sunday? And has a steady stream of fellow sailors also stopping in?

10. A Birthday For Our Captain

Michael celebrated his 38th birthday here on Niue. It was a marvelous day with Dutch babies with French strawberry jam for breakfast, a bit of snorkeling off a tiny sandy pocket beach, dinner at Gill’s Indian Restaurant (the best Indian food we’ve ever had!), chocolate-chip cookie “cake” and two giddy girls who absolutely love celebrating anyone’s birthday, anywhere. But here in Niue, more special for sure.

11. Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road

If you need to practice driving on the left-hand side of the road, Niue’s the place to do it as I don’t think the island has ever had a traffic jam. Although most of the island’s main road is only a single lane, it’s good practice to pull to the left to let another car pass by.

12. Sea Tracks

13. Chasms

14. Caves

15. Snorkeling

16. The Mischievous Whales

Humpback whales are known to frolic amongst the boats moored here in Alofi although the local residents say there haven’t been many sightings so far this season. We haven’t seen them either, but we have heard blows and tail/fluke slapping during the late evenings so we know they are here. Yesterday, our friends on Knotty Lady awoke to find a whale had visited their boat while they’d been out in town the evening before. What they found was essentially all their bow hardware torn off their boat and dangling underwater: their anchor roller, anchor chain, cleats, mooring lines, furled Code 0 sail, bow pulpit and anchor locker door torn clear off. The best anyone can guess is a whale got caught up in their mooring and had to struggle dearly to get free. The damage is breathtaking: whales are strong, much stronger than most boats. Thankfully, the whale clearly got free and Knotty Lady will be repaired and will sail on.

17. Community

By noon of the day after the whale damaged Knotty Lady, the entire island had heard of the incident. Their sail was drying ashore in the afternoon. By evening, bent stainless steel parts were already ashore at local Niuean shops who’d volunteered to rebend and repair the pieces. A meeting was set up this morning for sailors to gather and discuss what supplies we each had that could help repair the extensive damage to Knotty Lady’s bow fiberglass and by this afternoon epoxy was curing. Niueans and cruising sailors pitching in without hesitation to help a fellow friend in need. That’s the beauty of life hundreds of miles from anywhere but here with each other.

Passage to Paradise

The entrance to Maupiti, even less than a mile away, appears to be awash in white water. We’ve just sailed from Bora Bora, 25 fast downwind miles in 20 knots of wind. Each mile closer brought our nerves up another hitch and by the time we were peering into the skinny pass with our binoculars our hearts were pounding and palms damp. “Let’s go.” Michael says and we furl in the genoa and power forward towards the entrance to Maupiti’s calm turquoise lagoon. With the thought that this is a no-fail situation – either we make it though or we’re dashed to bits upon the reef – we are suddenly calm. We’ll make it. We have to.

Most boats skip right by little Maupiti on their way to Suwarrow or Rarotonga or Palmerston having had their fill of French Polynesia by the time they clear out at Bora Bora. But our Lonely Planet South Pacific has this to say about this piece of paradise: Bora Bora’s discreet little sister, Maupiti, is one of the most ravishing islands in French Polynesia and is already being talked of as a rising star of the region. Yet it still remains a hideaway where insiders come to revel in an unblemished tropical playground and to drop out of sight…. Maupiti offers complete relaxation – there’s only one road, and virtually no cars, just bicycles…Nirvana found? You be the judge.

We just had to see this place for ourselves.

Looking back, it never seems as bad.

However, our favorite travel guide also features a warning about the only entry into Maupiti’s lagoon: “Yachties, beware, as this pass is exposed to big swells and strong currents.”

When your Lonely Planet give you warnings on navigational hazards, it’s best to take heed.

Our Charlie’s Charts of Polynesia concurred, with Charlie’s typical warnings of the number of boats that have come to grief here in the last 50 years. It’s true, Maupiti’s pass is tricky: it’s winding and narrow (less than 100 feet wide in some spots) with swift outgoing current, and standing whitewater, given certain conditions.

Thankfully, the day we arrived at Maupiti’s pass we had nearly ideal conditions: very low swell from the south, moderate wind from the NE and it was midday so we could see underwater obstructions more clearly. As Michael steered toward the pass he kept his eyes on the water in front of us, which was calm, and the range markers ahead. Keeping them perfectly aligned we entered the deep dead center of the pass through the shallow reefs on either side of us which were covered in whitewater from the breaking swell. I was below with my eyes on our nav computer, yelling up encouraging words to him (“We’re right on track! Excellent!”). The kids were in the forecabin keeping quiet as they know by now to stay out of our way when there is sweat beading on our brows. Even below, I could hear the huge breakers on the reef to either side of us but was too nervous to look out the porthole above the computer. I asked Michael later how big the white water was and he said he had no idea, he was only looking straight ahead, eyes on the guiding markers only.

There is a dogleg turn in the pass and you line up another set of range markers, then continue on down the channel keeping red markers to port, green to starboard (as the rest of the world does it apparently). Before we knew it, the lagoon opened up and we were in brilliant calm aqua water with the island-mountain of Maupiti towering to the sky in the middle. We motored for another mile, keeping in the deep turquoise channel, then dropped our hook in the sand under 15’ of water amongst a handful of other sailboats. A light breeze ruffled the water and we just stood gazing around at one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen. We were floating between the small village tucked up against the side of the green mountain and the brilliant white sands of Motu Tuanai, striking hues of turquoise varying with the water depths around us. Nirvana. Found.

Our favorite anchorage in the Society Islands. Wondertime is the third boat in from the left.

This place is amazing. We’re going to stay for a while.


Photos from Huahine, Raiatea and Bora Bora

We continued to enjoy the simple pleasures of life on the leeward Society Islands. We enjoyed fantastic Heiva dancing and music on Huahine. We hiked to the top of Mt. Tapioi above the town of Uturoa on one of our windy days on Raiatea. In Bora Bora we did laundry, gathered fresh water and ate pistachio ice-cream. Here are a few photos of our time in these easy, beautiful, friendly islands. (Hover over to see a description, click to see full-size.)

Experiencing Moorea

Leah and her new friend Natalie snorkel with stingrays at Moorea

One of our main life philosophies is to spend our money and time on experiences, not just on acquiring Stuff. When we are (hopefully) old and looking back on how we spent our lives, these are the memories we will treasure. I think our five days in lovely Moorea will be one of the highlights.

Wondertime and Convivia kids building fairy homes in the mountains of Moorea

Petting stingrays

Chilling at the cruiser-friendly Bali Hai hotel

Riding horses through the pineapple plantations