Timeless Tonga

Destination: South Pacific

David Isom discovers a timeless land unspoilt by its increasing popularity when he calls in at the archetypal island paradise that is the Kingdom of Tonga.

If you really fancy cruising around Tonga, there are only two ways to get there. One is in the big tin budgie, which is really great to windward and faster than a high-speed cat. The other is by sea.

If we assume you want to sail, you can sail direct from Australia but most cruisers opt to sail to New Zealand and then head north, and this is what I did in Eliana, my Adams 40, with crew Nick Redward.

Once we'd paid our dues and sorted out the usual range of boat problems ð in this case diesel bug in the fuel, a non-functioning autopilot and a jammed furler – we set off from Boyds Bay, Eden, enjoying an uneventful passage with sit-down roast dinners most nights and a mid-crossing swim in 4500m. No long white clouds appeared, but we did see one fishing boat at North Cape on the 10th morning.


Beached with girls and BettySmith (rear right) and friends.

Pirates Rally
Once in Opua we opted to join the Island Cruising Association's Pirates Rally to Pangiamotu in the Kingdom of Tonga. This great association had been run for eons by Brian and Joan Hepburn but recently passed onto John and Lyn Martin, who live aboard their yacht Windflower at Opua marina.

There are a lot of pluses for going in an organised rally. Primarily, you are part of a dedicated group, which in our case became a very close-knit group of friends who helped one another out in a myriad of ways. You have a safety network in the form of compulsory daily radio scheds. The ICA engaged the services of legendary veteran Des Renner from Russell Radio. There were pre-departure briefings by weather guru Bob McDavitt, health information by a doctor and pharmacist, group purchases of medicines and alcohol, mass checkout with customs and immigration and, of course, a lot of socialising and getting-to-know-you events. Six months after the rally most of the 18 boats are still in regular contact via HF radio.

Beach shacks at Blue Lagoon.

Beach shacks at Blue Lagoon.

Four archipelagos
The Kingdom of Tonga consists of four main archipelagos, Tonga Tapu being the southernmost and our destination for the rally. Farther north is the Ha'apai Group, Vava'u and the Niuas.

For this rally the fleet ranged from a smallish Nicholson Manuma to a large William Garden Boreal.
The majority of skippers opted to stop at South Minerva Reef, some 800 of the 1080 miles from New Zealand. South Minerva offers a welcome respite after a long and often uncomfortable passage ð likewise for North Minerva 20 miles farther on.

Olaf Ruhan in his book Minerva Reef, which he wrote before satellite navigation made sailing easier and safer, said: “There are few reasons or occasions to take man to Minerva Reef and only those who, of their nature, probe and penetrate the unknown places ð the adventurers, the investigators – come within the orb of this menace. They are a breed who become racial heroes. They stand out among the crowd for one distinguishing characteristic, and that is their physical courage.”

This made those who went there and received their admission to the “School of Nautical Braggers” certificate feel like modern-day Magellans but in reality it is not difficult in fair weather.

We entered Nuku'alofa via the Egria Channel and went straight to Pangiamotu Island resort, which consists of basically a bar-cum restaurant, overlooking the water (naturally) and a few fales for onshore accommodation, where we were greeted by “Big Mama” Ana and husband Earle Emberson. Set in idyllic surroundings, this became the focal point of our socialising.

New arrivals were greeted by Americans Randy and Sheri aboard their superb Gozzard 44, who fired a cannon off amid boat hooters and horns. About three weeks of fun and hilarity continued here, the highlight being the Pirates Fun Night complete with the Nuku'alofa police band. Best-dressed pirate went to Randy, who had apparently been a pirate in a former life (or was he just in the US Coast Guard?).

Chicken run
It was time to head north, now singlehanded because Nick's stint as crew was over. Having looked at the charts of the Ha'apai group, I decided to take the “chicken run” and bypass the intricate reefs and go straight out wide to the Vava'u group, where the water is deep and sailing is easy. Those who have been to the Ha'apais might regard this as sacrilege because this is considered some of the best and most pristine and isolated islands in the kingdom. Kelefesia at the southern end of the group is also one of the most picturesque. You know, clean white sand, crystal-clear water, swaying palm trees . . . boring stuff like that.

Clearing in
Although Tonga is one kingdom it is essential to clear in and out with Customs and Immigration when entering and leaving each archipelago. A crewed-up yacht or brave singlehander would do well to explore the Ha'apais but would be well advised to check into the capital, Pangai. It was in this group off Tofua that mutineer Fletcher Christian took charge of the Bounty and set Captain Bligh on his epic voyage with 18 crew members in an open boat for 42 days and 3500 miles to Timor, thus surviving the longest voyage in an open boat ever recorded.

Neiafu Harbour
The trip directly from Nuku'alofa to Neiafu Harbour in the Vava'u Group is an easy overnighter and navigation is straightforward. Neiafu is virtually landlocked and very deep with most cruising boats renting a mooring for between $10-$15 Tongan per night or anchoring farther away from the action in shallower water. Again, it is essential to check in with customs and immigration upon arrival.

If crew are flying in and sailing out, you will need to (try to) obtain a one-way ticket letter from Immigration. This is where the bureaucratic fun starts. The permit for my 13-year-old daughter Annabel – who joined me for several months of my cruise – took more than two months to get and arrived after she did – another one being obtained (eventually) from the Tongan embassy in Sydney. The safest way is for crew to buy an expensive but refundable return ticket, which will satisfy authorities on departure and then can be cashed in later. Annabel's mother, Jill, had a return ticket because she was staying for only two weeks and had no problems.

Major airlines fly into Nuka'alofa and then you have to try and get a local flight up to Vava'u. This has been a little difficult because one of the two airlines closed down after last year's riots, putting pressure for seating onto the sole carrier. The riots were overstated in the press but have had a bad effect upon tourism. The reasons for them are complex and not simply antipathy towards local Chinese businesses.


Humpbacks off the yacht Synchronicity.

Friendly Islands
Tonga was dubbed “The Friendly Islands” by James Cook, who apparently mistook the locals' overtures as benign. A reading of William Mariner's account of the Tonga Islands would quickly clear up this common misconception. The young Mariner aboard the English privateer the Port au Prince survived a massacre of the crew in the Ha'apais in 1806, having been lulled into a false sense of friendliness by the local tribesmen. His ship was stripped and burned and Mariner became the adopted son of a warrior king. After four years in Tonga he escaped to England and became a stockbroker, where no doubt his newly acquired tribal skills were put to good use! An underwater cave in Vava'u now bears his name. Replicas of their earlier wooden weapons of mass destruction can be found in any tourist shop, but today the Tongans are friendly, if a little shy.

Neiafu really grows on you, and it is most difficult to actually leave this captivating place. They say if you stay six months you will never leave. Sure, the rubbish collection and locals' littering leave a lot to be desired, but how many towns have pigs and hens walking around in the main street and roosters waking you up all day, or the local church choir practising their singing at 5am just after you have gone to sleep? Cars are unnecessary because everything can be reached by dinghy and it takes only 10 minutes to walk from one end of the town to the other, all the way from the Aquarium Café via the Bounty Bar to the Crows Nest Café. This journey will take you past the catholic church, which naturally occupies the best piece of real estate in town ð on the top of the hill with views to the east of the old harbour and to the west the new harbour, which at the time of writing was filled with cruising yachts from all around the world.


Eliana from inside Swallows Cave.

Mermaid Bar
Friday nights are a big event, with the Mermaid Bar at the Vava'u Yacht Club being the place to be after the fun race. The bar is actually over the water. For those who have been to Middle Percy Island it's a bit reminiscent of the A-framed hut ð but licensed and closer to the water. For those who haven't, it's a lean-to shack clad with old gal iron, framed with bamboo and coconut trees or driftwood and festooned with bric-a-brac and flags from all over the world. On the way to the loos you will pass an old cruising yacht long grounded with trees growing around it that is now home to some young locals.



 Annabel with a mahi mahi.

This is a place where yachties can feel at home and swap lies with fellow cruisers from around the world. If things get too quiet, a cannon is likely to be fired off across the water to bring you back to your senses. The bar faces the west overlooking Neiafu Harbour and as watering holes go would have to be about as good as it gets. The biggest danger here is to the liver, but as a wise doctor once said: “The liver is evil and must be punished!”


Eliana in Hunga Lagoon.


Sunset with friends at Port Maurelle.

Port Maurelle

Around Vava'u the places to go are Port Maurelle, which offers great anchorage in most conditions. It was named after the Spanish navigator who in 1781 became the first European to reach Vava'u. Nearby is Swallows Cave, which can be visited by dinghy and offers interesting snorkelling when the shafts of sunlight come into the cave.

Nuku is a great little beach with good coral viewing just offshore.

Hunga Lagoon is inside the rim of a volcano and is entered on a highish tide but provides lake-like serenity in all conditions. At one end is the gamefishing lodge Ika Lahi, whose restaurant provides world-class cuisine ð not cheap but worth doing at least once. Mariners Cave is a little challenging diving-wise because it involves swimming under a submerged rock ledge for a few metres to get in there. Then there is The Ark floating gallery at Tapana, and so it goes on.

If you are bored with life Tonga should definitely cheer you up.



Tropical fishes abound.



Victorian David Isom studied to become an economist, worked as a musician and at the time of writing was heading down the east coast of Australia on his way home to Melbourne.


Fuel blockages are most likely to occur after heavy pounding of the boat. Tanks should be cleaned out before a serious passage and a second tank with separate filters that can be turned on at the flick of a tap would be desirable.

A boom brake of some description is essential. Chartplotters and/or MaxSea on a laptop are the go. As I had all the desirable gear like a parachute anchor, drogue, trysail, new storm jib, genoa and staysail, Murphy prevailed and the heavy-weather gear was naturally not needed. As to what was actually not needed, the only bit of gear that was disappointing was the wireless remote for autopilot and instrument read-out. It had a mind of its own and would turn off unexpectedly, possibly due to radio interference. This is a worry when you are in the middle of the Tasman at night and are sailing off-course. Also, I couldn't turn it off because it would disable the autopilot. It took an electronic engineer in New Zealand to sort it out and show me how to use the autopilot independently of the remote ð something which the instruction manual didn't explain.

Facts & further info

Cruising season
The cruising season is basically from around June to October, i.e. the Australian winter and in Tonga you would probably just wear shorts and a light shirt for the whole time (changing them is optional). Wireless internet is available from the Aquarium Café to vessels nearby in the harbour while other cafes also have internet facilities.

Sailing Bird's Guide to the Kingdom of Tonga, Charles Paul and Katherine L Pham-Paul, email info@sailingbird.com

Island Cruising Association, John and Lyn Martin, Yacht Windflower, emailica@iconz.co.nz

Yacht charters
The Moorings, www.moorings.com, moorings@tonfon.to

Sunsail Tonga Ltd, www.sunsail.co.nz, sunsail@kalianetvav.to

Melinda Sea Adventures, skippered charters and whale-watching, www.sailtonga.com, christy@kalianetvav.to

General info, Tongan Tourist Bureau, www.tongaholiday.com

JPK August 2023
NAV at Home
NAV at Home