The Kingdom of Tonga, also known as the Friendly Islands, consists of over 170 islands scattered over 270,000 square miles in the southern Pacific Ocean. Of those 170 islands only 45 are inhabited. Tonga has a population of 110,000 people and over 70% of those residents live in Tongatopu, the capital city of Tonga. The second largest island is Vava’u where over 4,000 inhabitants live in Neiafu.
Tonga’s history dates back roughly 2,500 years. The settlers gradually evolved into having a distinct and strong ethnic identity, language, and culture. It remains strong and independent to this day. Even though Tonga had British protected-state status for a brief period of time, they never relinquished their sovereignty to any foreign power. Tonga is currently ruled under a fully-functioning constitutional monarchy.
King Tupou VI
Aho’eitu Tupou VI is became the King of Tonga after his elder brother George Tupou V died and had no legitimate children. He was officially condirmed by his brother as heir presumptive in 2006. Aho’eitu served as Prime Minister of Tonga as as Tonga’s High Commissioner to Australia. Aho’eitu learned to love the sea while he served in the Navy.
The Royal Family must marry within the family. In order to continue the royal blood line the royal family is allowed to marry their 1st cousins. However, no other Tongan is allowed to marry family.
Tongan Island Groups
The Tongan islands are divided up into three main archipelagos including Tongatopu the southern islands; Haa’pai the middle islands, and Vava’u the northern islands.
Tongatopu Island Group
Tongatopu consists of the main island Tongatopu which is the capital of Tonga and is home to the majority of Tongans. The King and his family reside here and most of the commerce is conducted on this island. Eua and a few other smaller islands are also part of this archipelago.
Haa’pai Island Group
I think the Haa’pai island group is similar to the Tuamotus in French Polynesia. These islands are made up of shallow lagoons surrounded by reefs, coral shelves and a few active volcanoes. Most are low lying coral atolls.
They are the most remote group of islands and have small villages. Most of the 62 islands are are palm fringed islands and only 17 are inhabited. There are approximately 30 villages spread out across those 17 inhabitied islands housing 7,000 Tongans.
The main hub for Haa’pai is Pangai which is located on Lifuka toward the NE part of the island group. The four largest islands have running water and electricity. However, the remaining 58 islands live a life without those modern conveniences.
These islands are known for being an incredibly lush, green, tropical paradise. The islands are ringed with white sandy beaches and the crystal clear waters are teaming with wild life. In addition, you will find dramatic limestone cliffs, hidden caves and tropical forests on these islands.
Tongans are closely related to Samoans and other Polynesians in culture, language and general heritage. Local culture is very conservative and very Christian. They do not allow any work or activities on Sunday including laundry, boat chores, shopping, SUP’ng, etc…It is a day of quiet.
Clothing is very conservative. The government requires women to cover their shoulders down to their knees and men are required to wear shirts at all times. Nudity is forbidden and against the law. Most locals swim fully clothed.
Volcano and Tsunami
In 2022, the Hung Tonga-Hunga Haa’pai volcano erupted causing a tsunami which inundated parts of the Haa’pai and Tongatopu archipelagos. This tsunami brought waves as high as 20m tall (66′) washing away islands and villages and taking 4 lives. I will talk more about the damage from the tsunami in upcoming blog posts.
Our blog posts run 10-12 weeks behing actual live events. Events from this blog occured in mid-July 2023. Read our last blog where we experience a truly utter rudder disaster?
We thoroughly enjoed our solitude at Minerva Reef but it was time to make a move for Tonga. Our weather forecaster told us that a rather large weather system was coming and that we should leave for a more sheltered anchorage. Why do you ask? Well we were currently anchored at Minerva Reef which is not sheltered at all, there is no protection from the receeding reef that disappears twice a day at high tide. We had a somewhat “decent” weather window to make the 2-2.5 day passage. It is during this passage that we had an utter rudder disaster.
When we look at weather to make a passage we take into account several factors using 4 different weather models and a professional weather router. We look at wind speed, wind direction, cape, rain, swell size, and swell direction.
During this particular weather window we had good winds, no cape, and no rain. However, we did have big 3m seas coming from the rear quarter panel. This sucks as seas can make your trip very uncomfortable. But, we needed to leave for a protected anchorage so we took this window.
I should note here that the passage from New Zealand to Minerva had pretty rough seas as well. During that 6 day passage we had 2.5-3.5m seas the entire time. That is a lot of bashing on the boat for a long period. But we made it to Minerva and all was ‘”fine.”
Passage: Minerva to Tonga
You probably read about this passage while we were actually underway as Matt was writing “live blogs.” But to summarize, we had decent weather for the first 1.5 days. The seas were big, 3m, but they came in long increments and were not too choppy.
However, after that we encountered messy, choppy seas that made it feel like we were inside a washer machine. The boat was banging all over the place and it was very uncomfortable.
Auto is Failing
Around 9:30pm, Matt woke me to help him steer the boat. What? We have auto for that. Auto Pilot is our automatic steering system which we rely on a lot during passages. Consider it like “cruise control” in your car.
In big seas auto has a hard time steering the boat because the boat comes out of the water. With the big seas and strong winds the boat was wanting to head into the wind so Auto was having to constantly overcorrect by turning to port. But at this time, Auto was going every which was and not holding course at all. In fact, at one point, we were going backwards. This is when I took over hand steering as Matt adjusted the sails.
Matt and I worked on sail congifuration for 1.5 hours trying to figure out what was wrong with Auto. We finally settled on no main, a small double reefed jib and the engine. This was the only way to control steering and we still had 88nm (12hrs) to get to the channel in Tonga.
Keep in mind that it was pitch black outside, no moon, big seas, and the boat is moving 6-7kts. Matt checked the engine rooms to see if everything was ok with the rudders, but you can only see the top portion, and that looked good. You can’t see under the boat in these conditions.
We are missing what?
At dawn, we approached the Tonga channel. The winds had calmed down to a respectable 17-18kts and the seas were down to 1.5m. Matt went to the starboard sugar scoop and looked across to the port side and realized we were missing a rudder! Are you freakin kidding me?
Nothing we can do until we drop the hook so we continued on to the anchorage where we needed to clear into the country. Lucky for us, the officials allowed us to anchor outside the basin because we could not manuever around the small basin with only one rudder and limited steerage. We picked the officials up in our dinghy, did the paperwork on the boat, and then returned them to shore.
While in Raitea, French Polynesia we removed both rudders. This is what the rudder should look like:
Assessing the Damage
Once we cleared into the country we were allowed to jump in the water to evaluate the damage. There are multiple parts to a rudder….
The shaft is about 6′ in length and goes up into the engine compartment and down below the boat.
Tines or Fingers: There are 3 tines or fingers on the shaft below the boat. They are supposed to be long where they are perpindicular to the shaft jetting out in front and behind the shaft. They help support and enforce the blade.
Rudder blade made of fiberglass
This is what was left of our rudder:
As you can see from the above photo, we are missing the rudder blade completely and each of the 3 tines are damaged. But the good news is that shaft is intact!
As we are motoring into the anchorage I am emailing people for help. We met the owner of the one and only yard in Tonga (Vava’u The Boatyard) and we met the yard manager for Vuda Marina in Fiji during a conference in Auckland. It pays to network.
We also posted our problem on our blog and the emails, texts, and calls came flooding in. I cannot tell you how much love we felt during this difficult time. We had cruisers from NZ, Fiji, Tonga, French Polynesia, and Cook Islands, asking us how they can help. It was inspiring and amazing – thank you everyone.
We have a few options…
Tonga: Vava’u The Boatyard is a 1-2 day sail from our current location. We met the owner/manager at the conference and he has been of great assistance. They can rebuild our rudder using our good working rudder as a mold. The problem is that the yard is stretched thin and could not start work for 3 weeks and the entire project could take 6-8 weeks for a total of up to 11 weeks on the hard. We only have a 4 week tourist visa.
Fiji: Vuda Marina and South Pacific Fiberglass. We met the manager of Vuda Marina at the same conference and he had some great advice. He recommended two contractors to rebuild the rudder: South Pacific Fiberglass and Prasaads Marine. Both companies provided feedback, but South Pacific Fiberglass was more specific about cost and turn around. They can build the rudder in 10-14 days. But they are in Fiji and we are a 4-5 day sail from there. (1-2 days to North Tonga, then 2-3 days from N. Tonga to Fiji).
6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon
3. New Zealand: Try to follow along with this networking connection. A fellow cruiser, Jef in NZ heard about our rudder loss and reached out to us. Jef informed us that he replaced both of his rudders using Peter Palmer at Norsand and RH Precision in Whangarei.
We met Peter, who is another cruiser, last season in Fiji. Peter works part-time at Norsand in NZ which is the yard that will be hauling us out in Nov.2023. He used to manage the yard before he decided he wanted to cruise with his family 6-months of the year. We reached out to Peter and he said that there might be a spare rudder from Sel Citron, a Catana 52 in the yard. So, Peter told us to contat Norsand and ask them to track down this rudder.
We met Sel Citron last season in Whangarei. We reached out to him to ask about this rudder as well. The rudder was replaced on Sel Citron before the new owner, Dan took over Sel Citron, but he gave us permission to take and use the old rudder.
And to our great joy, the yard found it. Unfortunately it is not in great condition, but it is better than what we have which is nothing. They sent the measurements of the shaft, tines, and rudder and we compared it to our rudder.
Unfortunately it is not an exact match and it is a different shape but it is completely workable.
We measured our one good rudder and compared it to the measurements of Sel Citron’s rudder and it can work. We asked Norsand Yard in NZ to look into shipping costs to get the rudder from NZ to Fiji. Shipping items to Tonga is rumored to be extremely difficult, expensive, and time consuming. We decided to have it shipped to Fiji where the resources are more plentiful.
We will use Sel Citron’s rudder to get us back to NZ and then we will either have two new rudders made in NZ or we will ship in two new rudders from Europe.
The yard miraculously found a cruiser (Andreas on Seven Seas) who was leaving Norsand bound for Fiji within a few days. They loaded up our temporary rudder and delivered it to Fiji for us. Andreas was headed to Musket Cove (and we were still in Vanua Balavu). So we asked Andreas to give the rudder to our friend Chris on Sea Glub.
This is a huge favor, but know that curisers do this all the time for other cruisers. In fact we are caring a generator, outboard, and spare parts for 4 other boats right now. So, it’s nice to know that we all pay it foward.
The Spare Rudder
We arrive to Musket Cove and pick up our “spare rudder” from our friend Chris. As luck would have it, Peter (from Norsand) is here on his boat Camara. Peter is a master fiberglass professional. He came over and both he and Matt determined the shaft on the rudder is not long enough. What we had hoped would be a plug and play situation now became surgery.
The top shaft (big aluminium post) is our current rudder shaft and it is about 4″ longer than the spare rudder post (making it so the holes don’t align).
We have to put the spare rudder in place to determine how much of the blade has to be removed in order to get the shaft in place. Peter jumps in the water while Matt goes in the engine room. Once the rudder is in place, Peter scores the blade to mark where he has to cut. This will help in two ways. One it will allow us to push the shaft higher into the engine room (allowing us to use 3 of the 4 holes) and we can cut the top of the shaft to fit the curve of our boat.
Another blessing is that the rudder blade is shorter than our current blade, but it is wider. So even when we cut the blade (making it smaller) it will still have the same surface space as our existing rudder.
Our rudder floats. In order for us to get the rudder into place we have to put 40lbs wieghts onto it to sink it.
Altering The Spare to Fit
Another blessing: we are at Musket Cove where Peter knows the owner (we know Will, the owner, too, but not nearly as well as Peter does). We are able to utilize his workshop to alter our spare rudder.
Peter marks the rudder indicating where he is going to cut the blade. The top part of the blade (near the shaft) was nearly touching the bottom of our hull (which is not good). So, he is cutting more off that end than the back end.
After the blade is cut he has to sand down the fiberglass on the sides so he can apply new fiberglass across the cut top.
The next day, the fiberglass has dried and he applies a fairing and barrier coat. Then we have to hunt for anitfoul paint to seal it all up. The cruising community is so generous to us as we are able to find it for free. It doesn’t match anything but it works. The right photo shows the newly completed and fitted rudder.
Peter brings the rudder back to Sugar Shack. Matt adds the weights to sink it, added shims/spacers, and easily installed the rudder in less than 30 minutes.
We are officially a two rudder boat again.
How Does Sugar Shack Sail with one Rudder?
Because we are a catamaran, we have almost two of everything. On the one hand it is good as it acts as a spare, but on the other hand it is bad as we have to buy and maintain two of everything.
But in the case of our missing rudder, the one working rudder got a true work out. We sailed over 1,000nm on one rudder – how did we do it? We had to learn. A catamaran has to be evenly balanced and having one rudder caused the boat to constantly head up wind.
Our auto pilot had to work very hard to keep the boat heading in the right direction. We had to constantly depower the sails and deploy the dagger boards to help the boat hold a course. And even then there was a 20-40 degree margin. If our course was 220, we could head anywhere from 180-260 depending on the seas and the wind. So, it took us awhile to figure out how to sail with one rudder and we hope we never have to use this newly learned skill again.
What’s Our Plan?
Thanks to Peter’s help we will be able to safely navigate from Fiji back to New Zealand. This is already a challenging passage and one we did not want to make with one rudder. So, now we can head back to NZ with confidence.
Once we are there, we had already planned to haul out at Norsand (where Peter works). We have engaged RH Precision to remake our shafts and Peter will build us new blades. We will replace both rudders.
It is sad that it takes a disaster to remind you just how amazing humans can be. We are truly blessed and grateful for all of the help in the cruising community. Especially Peter!
Our blog posts run 10-12 weeks behind actual live events. This blog post occured mid-July on the passage from Minerva to Tonga. Did you read about our adventures in Minerva Reef – click here.
Minerva Reef is a natural phenomenon and a true wonder of the world. Located 800nm from New Zealand, 250nm from Tonga, and 450nm from Fiji – it is situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Minerva Reef is made up of the South atoll and the North atoll. During high tide both reefs disappear giving you the illusion of being anchored in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Many cruisers make it a priority to stop at one of the two reefs as they traverse between New Zealand, Fiji, and Tonga. Very few people can claim that they’ve made this stop so it is a huge honor to experience it.
Minerva Reef was named after the whaler Minerva which was wrecked in 1829 on South Minerva reef. Unfortunately, the reef has claimed many shipwreck victims over the years. One famous wreck in 1962 called Tuaikapeau was even turned into a documentary depicting the victim’s survival on the reef for over three months.
These two atolls have been the center of much dispute between Tonga and Fiji. Both of whom have laid claim to the reef. As of now, Tonga claims ownership even though no living souls inhabit the land. Makes sense as the reef (or land) disappears every 12 hours during high tide.
Geography of Minerva
Minerva Reef is a limestone base made of uplifted coral formations on the top of a dormant volcano. During high tide, only a few pieces of the reef are visible. During low tide, much of the reef is clearly visible forming a figure 8 (south) and a circle (north).
Coming from New Zealand we approach South Minerva first. This atoll looks like two circular rings interconnected like a figure eight.
The west circle is only accessible by dinghy (see red arrow). We explore a bit here then head back before low low tide. The water is spectacular.
When we arrived, there was one boat here. By the end of the day 2 more boats arrived. But this is a huge lagoon and we were spread apart. The next morning the 3 boats left and we were alone in this beautiful location.
The lagoon has crystal clear blue water. However, the anchorage is pretty deep 18-30m which makes it hard to see the bottom. The diameter of this atoll is about 4.8km. We can clearly see the reef all around us during low tide.
We take Sweetie out to explore the reef. Even though we are hundreds of miles from the very cold NZ, I sill find myself shivering and did not want to get in the water. But we did take the dinghy all the way up to the reef and managed a great look around.
We find one of the two lights on South Minerva, although she is not working any longer.
North Minerva reef is almost a complete circle. On the NW corner there is a pass that allows vessels to enter the lagoon. This reef is about 6.8km in diameter and is a little more popular than its sister in the south. This pass and lagoon are easier to navigate and more pleasant to anchor in.
Another wreck occurred here on this atoll called the wreck of the Comonderry which is now a good snorkeling site. This was a steel ship which had a colorful history before she ran aground in 1969.
We snorkel around the bow and stern and find tons of wildlife in and around the sunken ship parts and pieces.
A beautiful sunset to make you smile.
Our blog posts run 10-12 weeks behind live events. We visited North and South Minerva around mid-July. If you are wondering how we got here, please read “Voyage: New Zealand to Minerva.”
In our last blog we shared our voyage from NZ to Minerva – did you read about those adventures?