Tuesday, June 28, 2016

My Girl's In Print!
By Michael

For what it's worth, this is one
of my favorite Cruising World
covers ever.
My girls enjoy a comparatively large amount of free time and eagerly spend every minute of that time reading, writing, or drawing. Half of Del Viento’s 28,000-pound laden weight is from notebooks they’ve filled or will soon fill—it’s easier to pull teeth than to cull.

Eager to see her work published, Eleanor submitted some of her poems to Highlights magazine a couple years back. It was her first lesson in rejection (though kudos to the Highlights editor for a thoughtful, personalized response). More recently, she pitched a biographical, feature-length story to a girls’ magazine she likes, New Moon Girls. The editor loved Eleanor’s story and plans to run it later this year. Then, this spring, I saw Eleanor reading a book she got for Christmas.

“You know, that’s a sailing book and Cruising World magazine sometimes uses freelance writers to write book reviews. When you’re done reading, you ought to pitch a review to them…they pay money.”

“How much?”

“I don’t know, you’ve got to convince them to buy it first and then they’ll make you an offer.”

I got the ball rolling, but Eleanor ran with it. She wrote a succinct, professional pitch for a book review and emailed it to Cruising World. We all waited eagerly for a response. It was less than a week before Eleanor casually mentioned she’d heard back from a Cruising World editor.

“Awesome, what did they say?”

“They want to buy my review and they’re gonna pay me $40.” She beamed.

Well, we are always way behind in getting our physical mail forwarded to us, but we just arrived in American Samoa and waiting for us at the post office was the May 2016 issue of Cruising World and on page 20, there is Eleanor Robertson’s review of Melanie Neale’s Boat Kid: How I survived swimming with sharks, being homeschooled, and growing up on a sailboat.

That’s my girl.


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Goodbye Ha'apai
By Michael

Del Viento anchored in the inner harbor of
Pangai. For all you Baja cruisers, it reminded
Windy of Santa Rosalia in the Sea of Cortez.
Windy and the girls loading Pudgy.
So we’re leaving Tonga, probably tomorrow-ish. The irony of our Tonga sojourn is that we’ve been here just about all the months of the year that most people don’t come here. By far the biggest draw of Tonga—Vava’u and Ha’apai in particular—is the annual arrival of humpback whales from Antarctica. They come here to calve in Tonga’s warm, protected waters, from mid-July through the end of September. Tonga is the only place in the world that allows tourists (aboard the boats of licensed operators) to swim with the whales. (It makes for some amazing photos.) But alas, we experienced a different side of Tonga—definitely a quieter side.

The funny thing about this departure is that we’re not sure where we’ll end up. The winds are kind of mercurial—we just finished waiting for a doozy of a system to pass and now we see the south-easterly trades wanting to reform, but not doing so eagerly. So we’re going to depart and see what we can make out of what the winds do.

Ideally we’ll be able to make some south-easterly headway which will leave us in a good position to tack up to Niue. But that’s unlikely. And if that doesn’t work, and if our window is long enough—or rapidly collapsing—we’ll go north and duck into Vava’u. Ultimately, the point of leaving is to get to American Samoa (where packages await) and we may get a straight shot there and miss Niue and Vava’u altogether. That would kind of be a shame. We’ll see, stay tuned.

In the meantime, here are a few shots from Ha’apai, a smaller and less-populated island group than Vava’u.

Do you see the irony?

Ha'apai reminds all of us of the Tuamotus from back in French Polynesia.

Trust me, no network covers the entire Kingdom. I'm embarrassed
to say how long it took me to post this blog.

Both the library and museum appear closed.

Note the omnipresent pigs in the foreground. Harder to see the volcano
on the horizon.

Guard goat?

Camouflaged goat.

Boat names and hubris, never a good combo.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Kid Boats
By Michael

Frances being pulled on a paddleboard
behind Exodus's dinghy in Port Maurelle.
Some parents eager to cast off cruising with their kids (as well as the kids they plan to bring) are concerned about the likelihood they will encounter other kid boats. In Voyaging with Kids, Behan, Sara and I wrote about this:

"…there are plenty of kids on boats cruising the world’s oceans, and the amount of time you spend with them is up to you. How flexible are you with your cruising plans? If you’re hell-bent on following Alvah Simon’s example and wintering over in the Canadian Arctic, you may indeed be the only kid boat—the only boat—for hundreds of miles. But if your sights are set on a trade-wind circumnavigation or a winter in the Caribbean or time in any of the common cruising grounds, you’ll encounter lots of cruising families out there. Wherever cruising boats gather or resupply, blogs and the coconut telegraph will lead to kid boats. The rest is up to you."
--excerpt from Chapter 8, Voyaging with Kids: A guide to family life afloat (2015, L&L Pardey Publications).

So, we parents aboard Del Viento haven’t been hell-bent on following Alvah’s wake, but neither have we assimilated into the school of trade wind circumnavigators. We’ve been pretty contrarian. Who heads north from Mexico, to Alaska? Who spends the summer in the northern Sea of Cortez? Who end up being the last boat in the fleet to cross the Pacific in 2015? Who spends the cyclone season in Tonga?

Accordingly, we’ve not crossed paths with a whole lot of kid boats. (But the times we’ve spent with the ones we have met, have been pretty nice.) So it was a real treat when the Exodus crew dropped by Vava’u following their season in the Marshall Islands, nice parents, nice boys. Just don’t let them rope you into late-night, blind rum tastings while playing their favorite card game—the one that pits everyone against each other and rewards lying and deception. This family is hardcore.

Frances waiting on the surfboard.

I told Eleanor she reminded me of the waterskiing
squirrels. "What are you talking about?"
"Never mind."

So Barry, left, who skillfully delivers the weather each day on the VHF net in Vava'u, lost his mountain-stepped mast in Cyclone Winston this past season. Because he lives in remote Hunga Haven and needs his mast for communications antennae, he's spent the past couple months rigging a gin pole and otherwise prepping the site for the arrival of the first willing and able cruisers to lend a hand. That's Tim of Exodus in the middle and me off to the right. This raising was the climax, preceded by preparation and problem solving. (courtesy of Brendan on Exodus)

Barry's cutting branches and vines that had grown over the
standing rigging. Tim's holding the ladder. I appear to be doing
nothing, but I'm actually weighing down a block of concrete
the rigging is attached to.
(courtesy of Brendan on Exodus)

While Barry and I lift the mast vertically, Alex looks on
while his dad kicks the base over the step.
(courtesy of Brendan on Exodus)

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Fish Balls and Freediving
By Michael
Ha'apai, Tonga

My bride.
Remember that school of non-descript fish in Finding Nemo, the one that formed shapes to communicate with the lost little clown fish and send him in the right direction? Well, I don’t think it is the same school that hangs out in the shadow of Del Viento here in Tonga, but Windy insists our school does make coordinated shapes—specifically that of the much larger fish they seem to be hiding from. Not a day after she made this pronouncement, another cruiser said the same thing. Anybody ever observed this?

So while our personal school is cool, we heard that in Swallow’s Cave there are schools of fish that must number in the hundreds of thousands, if not larger. “Really? We’ve been in there, we didn’t notice.”

“You’ve got to be in there at exactly the right time of day, roughly 3:00 pm this time of year, when the sun is perched just above those hills and the light goes straight into the cave opening. It doesn’t last long, but what you see will amaze you.”

Sounded to me like that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones in the cavern, staff and crystal planted on the floor, waiting for that moment the sun shone through and aimed a beam of light on the map model on the floor, indicating precisely where the Ark of the Covenent was buried.

Such was our motivation for returning to Swallows.

“Eleanor!” the three of us called from the dinghy. (This is our thing these days, waiting on Eleanor. Doesn’t matter where we’re going, for what occasion, we’re in the dinghy waiting for Eleanor. If Del Viento ever sinks mid-ocean, rest assured Frances, Windy, and I will be in our lifeboat waiting for Eleanor.) There is no place to anchor near Swallow’s Cave. Last time we did what many boats do, leave one person to drive the mothership in circles while everyone else explores. This time, we opted for a long dinghy ride from Port Maurelle.

We got there late, the light was already illuminating the inside of the cave. It was a much different place. The schools of fish were immediately apparent. The girls jumped in the water.
Looking down at the bottom of
Swallow's Cave.

It was a blast swimming with the fish, as though we had a force field that would part the school as we swam through them, and allow them to join up again behind us as we passed. It was surprisingly difficult to get good photos. I didn’t figure out until the end that, counterintuitively, it makes more sense to shoot into the light.


Eleanor is the family freediving champion.

In French Polynesia, we got used to anchoring in clear water. I’d challenge the girls to dive to the bottom and bring me back sand to prove they’d made it. It became a thing and soon 15 to 20 feet was, literally, child’s play. Then 25 to 35 feet became easy. Recently, they both grabbed sand at 40 feet.

Then, working with another family (Hi Exodus!) to retrieve the blade of our Torqeedo prop that snapped off at the hub in 55 feet of water, Eleanor surprised us all. The father of this family and his teenaged boys are accomplished freediving spear fishermen. They were all in the game that morning—finding that broken prop was the order of the day. Tim was using an anchor with a line attached to pull himself quickly down to 45 feet where he could scan the bottom for a while before he ran out of air. Suddenly, there goes a determined Eleanor, kicking with her fins straight down, to the dark depths of 55 feet, where she grabbed a handful of sand (not my prop) and swam easily back to the surface, a huge smile on her face.


Do they spend their entire lives in the cave?

It looks like the fish are forming a human
figure to challenge Frances.

I seriously need one of those boxes that let me get above
water and underwater simultaneously.

Eleanor swimming through a fish ball.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Christianity, the King, and Culture
By Michael

With our Vagrant friends exploring the
limestone tide pools at 'Ene'io beach.
I’m not a cultural scientist, I’m just a visitor to Tonga who doesn’t speak Tongan. My assimilation into Tongan life has been extremely shallow. But I’m curious and have been trying to understand what I’ve been seeing since the day we arrived last fall.

I wrote about this in a post last December. I observed that Vava’u was being colonized, largely by Kiwi and Chinese ex-pats who were starting and running businesses. I wondered why the Tongans were sitting on the bench while foreign players were in the game, on Tongan home turf.

“Granted that ex-pats have ready access to more capital than the average Tongan. But there is a Tongan development bank in town. I’ve heard government corruption is a problem; is that limiting access to capital by entrepreneurial Tongans? Tongan life has evolved in a setting in which food and land are plentiful and the climate is friendly. Free time and attention are given to the church, to the family, to the kava bowl, and to a revered king. Have there been no cultural drivers or impetus to build business? And should there be?”

I concluded:

“Unfortunately for the people who have lived here simply and for so long, I don’t think they will have the option to continue with lives largely undisturbed and unaffected. My Western mindset is inclined to see change as progress and as opportunity for Tongans. But based on what I’ve seen, it’s not gonna happen that way.”

As we depart Vava’u for islands south, I have more to report. Following are some thoughts and anecdotes that have stuck with me.

Days ago, I happened to have a 20-minute conversation with a Tongan government official, a high-ranking person. About 110,000 people live in Tonga, not all of them Tongan (many of the aforementioned Kiwis and Chinese and a smattering of other nationalities call Tonga home). The official told me that last year, $200,000,000 in remittances came in to Tonga from Tongans living in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and other developed countries

I nodded, I regularly see long lines of people standing outside the Western Union office in Neiafu.

The official said this money leaves too many Tongans without a reason to work. He said it’s a big problem he and others in government want to solve. I got the impression he faces an uphill battle that involves more than economics. I got the impression he felt there were no answers at hand.

The average remittance can’t be large. Nobody here appears to be living the high life. Homes and cars and shoes are very modest. So how is it that this money sent home from Tongans abroad is enough to stifle entrepreneurial tendencies? Why does it still take a South African to appear on the scene to meet the demand for commercial laundry services—a booming business founded with only the capital needed to import 3 washing machines and 3 dryers?

A couple years ago, WorldatWork Journal printed an article titled “Culture: The Missing Link Between Remuneration  and Motivation” by Linda Herkenhoff, Ph.D. of St. Mary’s College. In the article, Dr. Herkenhoff tells a story from her time in Tonga:

“In a recent situation experienced by the author in Tonga, an American hotel owner wanted to provide perquisites as a performance motivator for his four management-level employees. He chose to provide company cars. He noticed the cars were usually missing even though the managers were at work. He later discovered that all employees from the cleaning crew upward borrowed the cars as needed. Tongan culture does not embrace hierarchy in business in the same way as the United States. Although Tongans have a hierarchical political structure that includes a king, prime minister and village chiefs, their day-to-day functional existence embraces an egalitarian notion that one can borrow from a neighbor without asking for permission if that person’s need is greater at that moment. This mindset limits crimes associated with stealing because Tongans are just borrowing and will return the item in good time, even if it is their neighbor’s prize pig.”

I’ll note here that, ironically, I haven’t been to a place I’ve felt more safe from theft (and crime in general) than Tonga. I never think twice about theft here.

We did some spring cleaning aboard and came up with a big pile of quality Tupperware-type containers we didn’t need. I put them in a bag and brought them down to the open food market where we buy produce from Tongan women who sell their veggies 6 days a week. I showed my bag to a seller. “Are you interested in trading for these?” She shook her head. I approached the next woman and asked the same question.

So let me set the scene, the Tongan market is small and rarely very busy. Every seller is aware of and is watching every transaction that takes place at another table. The second woman nodded and motioned for me to set the bag down next to her.

Eleanor on a hike with our friends
from Ambler. (photo courtesy Ambler)
“What do you want for them?” she said. I could hardly hear her.

“I don’t know…” I began removing pieces from the bag to display them before her. As quickly as I put containers on her table, they disappeared on to a shelf underneath. I sensed she was uncomfortable. “How about 12 dollars’ worth of your produce?”

She nodded quickly and motioned for me to stop, “That’s okay, that’s okay.” She said, pushing the bag under the table.

I picked out the veggies I wanted. She put more into my bag (I’m told that in Tongan culture, the worst trait that can be exhibited is selfishness or greed).

Then the others showed up. Two or three other women from around the market were at my side with veggies of their own, putting them into my bag. I was confused.

It was explained to me later that these women were laying claim to a share of the loot the other seller had acquired through my trade.

Going back to my conversation with the government official, he told me he no longer hires Tongan housekeepers. He said shoes will go missing and appear on the housekeeper's feet the next day. Hair clips, nail clippers, and food all disappear. He stressed that this was accepted, that the housekeepers bore no shame. They were not stealing, but borrowing, perhaps for a very long time.

There are four core cultural values in Tonga. One of them, feveitokai'aki, stresses sharing, cooperating, and fulfillment of mutual obligations. Apparently, it’s from this value that the permissiveness of borrowing at will originates.

The official told me he is Tongan but not raised to accept this interpretation. He said the “feve” culture strips people of the motivation to acquire. After all, anything you have that might be desired by your peers, you stand to lose.

'Ene'io beach wildlife.
He blamed the recent cyclone (Winston) on the relative shortage of certain root crops at the market these days. “But that’s not all. Nobody wants to farm. Our kids don’t know how to use a shovel to dig a hole in the dirt. 20 years ago, Neiafu exported crops that today we import. It’s sad, there is no excuse for importing things we could produce ourselves. We have the space, the soil, the climate. We don’t have the motivation.”

The other day we met a Japanese volunteer from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which is similar to the Peace Corps. His job for the past several months has been to teach agriculture—seed harvesting, sustainability, and the like.

The Peace Corps is here in force, we see them when they’re in town, American twenty-somethings clustered in drinking establishments not owned by Tongans. I wonder about what they’re learning about this culture before arriving. I wonder what they hope to change, to what end?

The last thing I heard on the VHF as we left Neiafu was an announcement: beginning July 3, the government will begin enforcing a law it suspended in 1982, following Cyclone Isaac. The law: no baking or selling bread on Sunday. Owners of bakeries that open on Sundays will be subject to fines and imprisonment. I’ve written before that Sundays are quiet around here. Neiafu appears deserted and the only sounds are from the churches. No swimming or play is permitted. But you could always buy bread from a back door of one bakery downtown, and from another just a few blocks away. No more.

More 'Ene'io, Windy with Shane and Ian from Vagrant.

Same place, Tina with Windy and the girls.

Andy doing some stainless welding for us at the Neiafu commercial pier.
See the pile of white stuff on the pier behind his transformer? That's
dead, broken coral. It's used extensively throughout town, for walkways
and as a building material, like gravel.

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