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Suvarrow 2017

Suvarrow sailing
Anchorage island, near Tom Neale's old house

Our year in French Polynesia was ending and we were planning our sail across to Tonga. From Raiatea to Vavau it is around 1200 nautical miles, and the Cook islands are on route. However, the Cooks are scattered islands that run roughly North-South, not so ideal if you are travelling from East - West and want to visit several islands. So cruisers normally make a choice - Palmerston, Penrhyn, Manihiki, Rarotonga, Aitutaki or Suvarrow being the main options.

We chose Suvarrow in the northern group. In a way, it was because of this island that I dreamed of visiting the Pacific islands. When I was 20 (a few months before I met Frans and we bought our first boat) I was travelling through NZ and staying on a WWOOF farm, helping the family with their vegetable gardens and animals. The family had built their own beautiful log house, and during the evenings I would often look through their book collection. I came across a well worn old paperback with an intriguing title, 'An island to Oneself'. I took it back to the caravan where I was sleeping and, over the next few nights, read all about the adventures of New Zealander Tom Neale. He travelled to the Pacific and spent time as a storekeeper on various Cook islands before getting a ship to land him on uninhabited Anchorage island in the Suvarrow lagoon. He then spent several years (on and off) living in Suvarrow, where he kept chickens, built himself a house, grew his own vegetables, drank coconuts and fished from the bountiful lagoon. I fell in the love with the dream of an island all to yourself and the simple lifestyle Tom enjoyed. Back in the log house, the owners brought out a map of the Pacific islands. Though they had never been, they pointed out Suvarrow to me - a tiny speck, amongst hundreds of other tiny specks in a vast vast ocean. Before this moment I think my geographical knowledge of the Pacific was pretty slim. I knew of several countries there, and had heard of places like Tuvalu and Tokelau, but until then I didn?t fully realise just how many thousands of islands there were, and how they each had their own life and story. I was enchanted. I knew I had to visit these islands for myself. So now, almost 20 years later, with the opportunity to sail to Suvarrow on my own boat it was clear which of the Cook Islands was calling us.

We had a lovely gentle passage from Raiatea and arrived at Suvarrow to enter the lagoon with the morning tide. Our Irish friend Shane had arrived a day earlier so we anchored beside his boat. Always a treat to sail to a new country, an uninhabited island no less, and have a friend there waiting to greet you on the way in. We took the sailing dinghy into shore, where Tom?s old house is still standing. It was quite remarkable to stand there, in the middle of the ocean, hundreds of miles from the nearest inhabited island, and imagine one man living out his life here quite contentedly away from the rest of the world. Not something many people would chose, and unlikely something I will ever do myself, but I can feel the appeal and attraction. His house is now home to lizards, spiders and insects, and what is probably one of the worlds? most unusual and isolated book exchanges! On shelves and tables in what was once Tom?s living room, there are now a diverse and multi-lingual collection of books and magazines from passing yachts. We swopped a couple of our tatty salt-encrusted paperbacks for some similarly afflicted texts for our passage to Tonga.

Suvarrow sailing
Anchorage island, Suvarrow

The rest of the days we spent lazily, sailing the dinghy, swinging from the rope swings, giving each other haircuts, running along the beach, swimming from the shore. We didn?t swim from the boat much as the circling sharks looked a little too large and hungry to be playing with. Despite all the sharks we have been in the water with in French Polynesia I still feel uneasy about choosing to jump in the water with them. They are like a pack of wild dogs ? you don?t really know how they are going to act; and as we were so far away from any help if anything did go wrong, it seemed easier not to take the risk.

After a couple of days the clouds began to gather, and the winds shifted round to the north. If the winds came from the west there would be no protection for us in Suvarrow. Another boat who had arrived in the lagoon had a recent weather forecast, and it looked like it was a good time to sail for Tonga.

We were hoping to stop in Nuie on the way to Vava'u, and set a course for this rocky island. The first night out was uneventful, but the clouds kept gathering and darkening, the barometer dropped, and the wind was not acting as predicted. I sensed trouble ahead. The next day strong westerlies came, and for 48 hours we had fairly rough seas. Then the winds switched and were from the east, and strengthening. The seas were rapidly rising, and becoming steeper and closer together all the time. It did not look so good. Sangvind was holding up well, but we had snapped a length of rigging on our trip to Suvarrow, which was now jury rigged with spanners and high tension rope, and we weren?t sure how much load that could take safely.

We were approaching Niue after sunset and saw lights from land. We hailed a yacht on the radio for an updated forecast. A Polish sailor replied that the wind was predicted to drop the following day. We debated pulling in to Niue for shelter, but decided to continue on to Tonga. The anchorage in Niue is not well protected from South, West or North winds, and it is hard to land a dinghy here, especially with a big swell (you need to winch it up onto a concrete dock) - whereas Vava'u is a completely landlocked harbour.

In hindsight it may have been better to stop in Nuie - as the wind did not ease, but strengthened considerably over the next 24 hours. The gusts we had during that next day and night at sea were well over 50 knots, and a steady 40+ knots the rest of the time. Some of the steepest and highest seas we have encountered over our years of sailing, breaking crests one on the back of the next. We were sailing downwind with a small jib and the windvane was handling the waves well, until the steering paddle broke. Frans and I went into the cockpit, harnessed and clipped in. I hand-steered, while Frans hung over the transom and got the replacement paddle locked in. Not an easy task with breaking waves crashing over us, and Frans hanging upside down half in the water! The boys were inside, peeking out through the weatherboards, checking that we weren?t getting swept away. We didn?t let them out into the cockpit while the storm was in full force, just let them take a quick glimpse of the waves in a quieter moment. They were remarkably untroubled by the situation, not letting any fear show.

I think we were all in a heightened sense of awareness, calm but in control and constantly monitoring the situation - alert to every small change in sound of the boat or the screaming of the wind, and every change of movement. The boat would rise up on another mountainous wall, almost flying over the crest, to crash-slide down into the trough before getting picked up again. My main worry was a broach - losing steerage and slipping sideways down a wave with the risk of getting rolled. We did not sleep much. Each mile, each hour was a step closer to Vava'u, which is one of the most perfectly protected of all South Pacific anchorages, and we were all dreaming of being tucked up snugly in there.

Eventually, after around 30 hours from leaving sight of Nuie we were round the north of Vava'u and finally gained some protection from the wind and the seas. There were now no more waves breaking over us, and we allowed the boys to come out into the cockpit so they could have a look at the angry seas. We still had several hours of sailing to go, but the relief was great. We were in calmer waters. We had nearly made it. We dropped anchor later that evening in Port Maurelle and ate a good filling meal of rice and beans and fruit crumble. We started to tidy the disarray and slept soundly.

The next day we cleared into customs in Vava'u and heard we had unwittingly sailed through Cyclone Ella - an unusual out of season cyclone, that was now heading towards Fiji. Well, that explained why it seemed so bad! Another boat who had been through the same system suffered a full knockdown, so we got off fairly lightly. To celebrate our safe arrival we went out for pizza, beer and icecream, as we had promised the boys a meal out when we got to land!

vava'u sailing
Happy times in Vava'u

So, from lazy days in Suvarrow straight into a tropical cyclone - from one reality to another, without even leaving home - cruising life is really about extremes! But having spent well over a decade in the Pacific islands they feel like a home to me, and like Tom Neale I know the islands are a place I will continue to return to.

We were coming back to Vava'u after sailing there over 10 years previously, and it was wonderful to visit old friends we hadn?t seen for so long - Ben and Lisa on Fetoko island, Kirsty on Mounu, Kjell and his family in Neiafu, and Karyn and Boris and their boys on Fofoa. Many wonderful days and nights. Felix and Dylan share the same birthday, so they celebrated their 13th together on the beach - having last played wooden trains together 10 years ago! There was also another island campout for the kids on Kenutu island with 'Be and Be' and 'Skylark'.

Luca, Felix, Dylan, Paulo, Jayden and Raquel

Off on a bushtrip around the island

Kids camp on Kenutu

And the other tent

With Louise and Peta

With Kjell, Ben and Tim

Taking Ben and Lisa sailing

End of another great day

I have written about our time in French Polynesia on a previous page, but it wouldn't be right for me not to include some extra photos here from the months after writing that page. We provided a foster home for a gorgeous Panamanian guinea pig called Chio (who has now found a permanent home and family of his own on Moorea); my aunt Kate visited from England - her first time sailing with us; and we introduced our boys, and the 'Be and Be' kids to spinnaker flying. Much more of course, great times especially with 'Pesto' and 'Skylark', and amazing singing in Tahaa church over Easter, many many special moments and people.

guinea pig sailing
Chio, the ocean-going guinea pig

Kate enjoying herself in Moorea

spinnaker flying
Gentle spinnaker flying

spinnaker flying
more adventurous spinnaker flying

With Geoff and Peta at our favourite bar in Huahine

Papeete waterfont, with Shelby, Evie, Jake and Harry

Jake, Jayden and Harry, with Borabora island in the distance

Anchored at Bora Bora yacht club