Tag Archives: Tonga

Navigating through customs can be frustrating, comical

Craig raising the quarantine flag, 2014.

What happened with the customs officer in Tonga?” a reader emailed, referring to a comment I made in last week’s column about a misunderstanding Craig and I had after arriving in that country by sailboat. “Perhaps other cruisers would like to know so they don’t make the same mistake.”

If only it were that simple. Countries’ entry and exit laws regarding foreign boats can be as hard to get right as sailing there in the first place.

It’s easy to read a country’s official policies online and in cruising guides. But because sailing schedules are ruled by the weather, boats sometimes arrive, or must leave, on weekends, holidays and during off hours. Often it’s not clear what to do at those times.

In addition, not all workers are up to date on their governments’ latest regulations. And even if they are, some officials view the check-in and checkout procedures more as guidelines than laws.

In 2006, for example, after arriving in the Cook Islands on a Sunday, I followed protocol and insisted that my crew stay aboard, at anchor, until Monday. After a difficult, upwind passage, this was like a jail sentence.

By Monday, however, after my radio calls went unanswered and no one came, we inflated the dinghy and went to the harbor’s administrative center.

“You should have come ashore,” the exuberant customs officer said when I told him when we arrived, “and enjoyed our beautiful island (Aitu­taki)!”

Other workers toe the official line. Last month we arrived in Vavau, Tonga, on Maundy (Holy) Thursday. Warned in Niue that everything in these devoutly Christian nations would be closed until Tuesday, we asked the locals who helped tie the boat to the entry dock what do to.

“Go there,” two men said, pointing to a nearby building.

Wrong building. A harbor official drew us a map to another building six blocks away. Wrong again. When we got back, an angry customs officer was at the boat.

“No one leaves the boat before being cleared!” he said. “Where did you go?”

The officer scolded us as we explained, apologized and groveled. Eventually the hand-drawn map convinced him that we had been misled, and he started us on our trek through Tonga’s customs, immigration, quarantine and health clearances, each division with its own inspector, forms and fees.

We were lucky. Customs officers can fine you, impound your boat or have you arrested.

Leaving a country by boat can be as tricky. In Suva it took us no less than four visits, each 2 miles round trip, walking, to the immigration office to check out. But the Fijian workers were so cheery about the time mix-ups — Oops, lunch time. Three o’clock? Sorry, we meant 6 — all we could do was laugh. Besides, after being on a 37-foot boat for most of a month, exercise felt good.

Worldwide, when arriving at a foreign port, vessels must request clearance by flying a yellow quarantine flag. It seems straightforward enough, but seasoned sailors know that hoisting a Q flag often signals the beginning of another memorable experience.

But having memorable experiences is why we go cruising.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott


All over but the recounting, trip had plenty of highlights

Resized marina fish

Fish in the marina , New Caledonia, 2006. ©2006 Susan Scott

Craig and I have been traveling together for 34 years now, and at the end of each journey, he asks me the same question: What was your favorite part of the trip?

After eight weeks of sailing 2,771 miles across the South Pacific, I had so many events, animals and places to choose from that days later I’m still coming up with answers to variations of the question.

The funniest moment of the trip, for instance, occurred in Suva. When you sail to a foreign port, customs, immigration and quarantine officials come aboard to clear the occupants and boat to enter the country. This can be easy and brief, or not.

After a mix-up in Tonga, where we angered the customs officer, in Fiji we were on high alert.

We soon lightened up, though, when the customs officer asked Craig his one and only question: “How long have you two been married?”

After a moment of silence, Craig said, “Um, I don’t know. Susan?”

The three officials in our cockpit burst out laughing.

“Man,” said the immigration officer as he stamped Craig’s passport, “you are in big trouble now.”

We laughed a lot in Suva, where nearly everyone greeted us with a warm “bula,” Fiji’s equivalent of “aloha.” For smiles, friendliness and just plain fun, Suva was my favorite city.

Sea snakes topped my list of must-see animals for this trip, and at least a dozen of those marine reptiles answered the call. One, a 4-foot-long blue and black banded snake, called a black-lipped krait, surfaced to breathe between Craig and me, snorkeling not 2 feet apart. It ignored us, but we will remember that little black face forever.

I felt even happier that I made this voyage when New Caledonia’s dugongs showed up. Dugongs are the Southern Hemisphere’s sea cows, gentle half-ton mammals that graze on sea grasses growing in shallow coastal waters of the Indian and Southwestern Pacific oceans. (Manatees, dugongs’ close relatives, live only in the Northern Hemisphere.)

In New Caledonia, where sea grass beds are extensive and marine sanctuaries widespread, dugong sightings are routine. We saw four, all brief glimpses of broad, brown, curved backs.

It was enough. Just knowing that these rare and endangered animals were feeding around the boat was a thrill like no other.

After Craig asked me to name my trip favorite, I put the question to him.

Craig likes sailing at night, especially during a new moon when the stars sparkle with intensity. He also likes full moons that turn the ocean silver.

During one of his night watches, he came below deck and touched my arm. “Sorry to wake you,” he said, “but you have to see this.”

The full moon was slowly turning a deep burnt orange as stars popped out like lights on timers. We had sailed into the splendor of a total lunar eclipse, Craig’s perfect night at sea.

We choose different highlights of our travels, but on one point we always agree: Oahu is the best place to live. No matter how good the journey, we’re happy to go home.

Especially by plane. Honu will stay in New Caledonia until our next adventure.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott


Fascinating anemones, fish are worth a bit of discomfort

Published April 28, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Vava’u, Tonga, 2006

VAVA’U, Tonga » I know I’m in a good place when I have fin sores on my feet, and the mask grooves in my forehead are nearly permanent features of my face. Even in my sleep I know I’m in a fine place. The anchorages here have been so still that I awake thinking I’m home.

But I’m nowhere near Oahu. Craig and I are sailing our 37-foot ketch Honu in Tonga.

Specifically, we’re exploring Tonga’s Vavau group, a nearly round archipelago in the northern part of this island nation. Vava’u comprises 60 islands, covering an area 16 by 18 miles.

Massive coral reefs protect Vava’u’s islands from the southeast waves. The result is one of the world’s premier sailing grounds, a cluster of calm waterways weaving around sparsely inhabited islets that look like lush flowerpots. Some have powder-white sand beaches on one side and caves in vertical limestone cliffs on another. Most every islet hosts a vibrant coral reef. And that’s why my snorkel gear is wearing holes in my body.

In some places I don’t kick, but float motionless a few feet above the reef. My presence causes commotion when I’m hovering over a pink, yellow, blue or white anemone. Some anemone tentacles are bubblelike; others remind me of gummy worms. These shag carpets of the reef don’t mind my gaze, but their resident anemone fish do. The little fish act as security guards and take the job seriously.

Anemone fish, Anemone with fish in it. Vava’u, Tonga 2014. © Susan Scott

Anemone fish are the poster fish of symbiosis, living among the tentacles of stinging anemones without being harmed. Researchers believe a mucus coating protects the fish from the anemone’s sting.

As payback for a safe haven, the anemone fish drive off butterflyfish, predators that view anemone tentacles as yummy meals.

But the little anemone fish’s defense maneuvers aren’t limited to butterflyfish. If I get my face too close to their home, the tenant fish show me their frowny faces and sometimes fake a charge. “Get back!” the 6-inch-long Chihuahuas of fish seem say to me, a 68-inch-long monster. “Or what?” I think, smiling. Advancing my camera toward the indignant fish sends them deep into the folds of their wiggly security blanket.

Female anemone fish lay eggs near their anemone’s base, and the male guards them vigorously. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae drift as plankton for a week or two, depending on species. (At least a dozen kinds of anemone fish inhabit the Pacific and Indian oceans, all in shades of orange, brown and white.) After developing fins, the baby fish look for an anemone haven.

All members of this group begin life as males. Usually one monogamous pair of anemone fish share an anemone. If a female is removed from a pair, the male left behind turns into a female.

A dominant juvenile on the anemone’s outskirts then matures and becomes the male of the pair.

The pastel anemones and their plucky companions are so abundant here in Vavau’s warm, clear, shallow waters that I’m snorkeling blisters on my feet and furrows on my face. Never before has pain been so much fun.

Banded Sea Snake. Vava'u Tonga, 2014. ©2014 Susan Scott

Banded Sea Snake. Vava’u Tonga, 2014. ©2014 Susan Scott


Vava’u group of islands, Tonga, 2006

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott


Boat provides a challenge too daunting to sail solo

Published March 31, 2014 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2014 Susan Scott

Honu in Tahiti 2006. Courtesy Scott R. Davis

PAPEETE, TAHITI » Last weekend I flew to Papeete because I left my sailboat Honu here in October to sit out the southern hurricane season. That being over now, it’s time to pack the boat with brie and baguettes, cast off the mooring lines and sail on.

When I mentioned this upcoming voyage to friends and acquain­tances back home, the first thing they asked was, “Are you sailing alone?”

No. I sail alone on short trips, but I don’t go offshore by myself for one simple reason: It’s too scary. But it’s not the open ocean that scares me (usually). It’s the boat.

Cruising sailboats have most of the appliances we have at home, all the machinery of our cars, and an IT worker’s nightmare of computer-driven nautical systems. Towering above all that is an elaborate assortment of ropes, poles and wires supporting flexing masts and flapping sails.

We cram this mass of specialized gear into a small space (37 feet by just over 12 feet in this case) and sprinkle it with salt water while shaking and pounding it for weeks on end.

The sailors’ old joke that the definition of offshore cruising is repairing your boat in exotic places is only funny if you’re good at fixing things. I am not.

But no worries. I’m sailing with my husband, Craig. It will be just the two of us, but having a man who’s been sailing since he was 6, and is good at troubleshooting and repairing all manner of marine systems, is like having an engineer, navigator and sailing instructor all in one.

Oh, and he cooks, too.

The other questions people ask about concern our destina­tion, route, distance and timing.

Craig and I plan on sailing to the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji and New Caledonia, where we will leave Honu in a marina and fly home to work. We have two months for this voyage, about 3,000 miles due west. This may seem like plenty of time, but when your vessel averages 5 mph, timing is a concern.

I want to leave Honu in New Caledonia for a while because it seems that whenever I see a photo of a fantastic new (to me) marine species, the location credit says New Caledonia. We shall see.

To answer another question, yes, I’m planning on writing my columns while sailing, sending them through my satellite phone email system — providing the satellite phone, computer and battery charging systems all keep working. I live in hope.

Satellite phones are marvelous inventions but they don’t transmit photos. I’ll try to paint pictures with words.*

The route Craig and I will be following is nicknamed the Coconut Milk Run because the prevailing winds come from behind the boat, making it an easy downwind run. In theory. I sailed this course in 2006 with two friends and had contrary wind directions and, of course, several boat system failures. Fortunately my friends were good sports and clever repairmen.

Now I get to again make the run with Craig, who on the boat is cheerful company and consistently optimistic. And, even given my deficient repair skills, he calls me captain.

Thank you, dear readers, for your caring questions and sincere best wishes. Stay tuned.

Susan aboard Honu during the Coconut Milk Run in 2006

*Susan’s web guy, Scott, was one of the crew on the 2006 voyage and will try to use pictures from that voyage to augment Susan’s painting with words.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2014 Susan Scott