The North Side of Tonga
By Kimball Livingston
Can you name a regatta that in its first three years became the biggest annual festival in its island state? The answer was, and is, Regatta Vava’u & Festival.
Northernmost of the island groups in the Kingdom of Tonga, Vava’u has whales, reefs for the diving, beaches (though not as many beaches as Ha’apai to the south) and smooth, protected sailing waters. There’s even a modest charter industry, with Moorings and Sunsail facilities side by side.
I went for the racing, such as it is, with one after another cruiser “racing my house” and being rather protective of it. The fleet, you see, consists of whatever cruisers happen to be passing throughalways a minority slice of the total fleet moving through the South Pacific in any given yearplus a charter boat or three. Here, a Jenneau 49 shares the harbor at Neiafu with a Sunsail cat.
So why did the pig cross the road?
I don’t know. What I know is that pigs run free, and here, people build fences to keep pigs out, not in . . .
After a week or so to reflect, I had good memories of the sailing, but there is more. The Festival component in 2011 was vivid. I’ve been to floor shows on Waikiki, but this is not that. When the town of Neiafu shuts down “Main Street” and brings out the school kids to show off the islands’ traditional dances, the result is for them, about them.
It’s a local thing.
You can’t buy that.
In that moment, no matter how much the Festival hinges upon the Regatta, you are fortunate to be a guest. And incidental. A palangi, as we’re known.
Here is the Chanel High School band arriving to kick things off on Day One. No, they were not going to perform traditional dances, but yes, this was one iteration of a Catholic schoolboy’s uniform . . .
While the band played, there were faces in the crowd . . .
And some whose minds were elsewhere . . .
Vava’u is quite an “other” place from a palangi point of view. Tongan society has transitioned pretty-much intact to the 21st century. The personal automobile (as opposed to the extended-family truck) is a development of the last decade, and television, via broadcast from Fiji, arrived on an even more recent timetable. If you think everybody in the world is just like you, you’ll be headed for quite an identity crisis in Tonga, and there I’ll leave it, rather than dig myself into an abyss of second-hand wisdom.
I sailed two races with Auckland rigger Mark Edwards aboard his “I wasn’t going to have another boat” Relapse, a 50-footer that he built himself. We led our section in both races, but it was in the waterfights that Relapse team members most covered themselves in glory. If I remember correctly, this was in sequence to the first start . . .
Later, the palangis had a pub crawl . . .
And the palangis had a tug-of-war . . .
And an egg toss. Sacha takes one for the team . . .
And on Kid’s Day the palangis threw a party for the kids. Here is “Billy” organizing a game. As the story goes, Billy grew up in a circus, and he’s had every job there is in a circus . . .
The volunteers say, “Keep your head up. Keep one foot always ahead of the other. Trust us. We won’t let you fall.”
Kid’s Day coincided with the opening of the Rugby World Cup, with Tonga’s team, Ikale Tahi, going up against New Zealand. There was excitement in the air . . .
And then, a parade. Here’s Billy lining up the troops . . .
Everyone was in the mood . . .
One group after another demonstrated the dances of old. The audience sang along with the performers . . .
Everybody wants to be a star . . .
Some people can be taught to dance. This kid was born to dance. He was fierce . . .
The women come around and give money to show approval . . .
And they could not leave the kid alone . . .
Full disclosure: It rained like crazy at times. Here is Mark Edwards in race two in a lot more rain than you can read through the camera lens. And no, he’s not wearing a Silly Hat . . .
We finished in a light mist and very light breeze, ghosting along with two otherwise-bored pre-teen boys jumping and swimming, jumping and swimming. We figured that, under the circumstances, that fit the requirement to finish with all gear and crew in their normal position . . .
We anchored off Ano Beach with light rain still falling, enough rain to keep most people on their boats until evening, when it dried out and we went ashore for dinner and a Full Moon Party that could best be shorthanded as Burning Man Comes to Tonga. Here’s one of several hardworking race organizers, Jason, in costume . . .
This was the scene off Ano Beach in the next a.m. That’s Relapse at right, rafted up, and that is the Edwards family Opti, Relax, tied to the stern. For twelve-year-old Ash, the special project of the summer was to employ the ship’s windscoop to serve as a downwind specialty Opti sail. Effectiveness marginal, except for flaring off excess energy . . .
Ash was deployed aloft (the masthead is 84 feet off the deck) to manage the signal flags . . .
But a weather window had opened, suddenly, and Relapse was keen to make off for the next island group to the west, Fiji, which is also (for most travelers) the jumping off place for New Zealand, to change climates and avoid the cyclone season in the South Pacific. For Relapse, New Zealand is simply home. Thus there was no Race Three aboard Relapse. For all my faithful service, I was beached.
Which is not to say that I missed the race back to Neiafu (I note that the crew of Mistress was competitive enough to set a spinnaker, but not so keen as to bother hauling the dinghy); rather, it’s just that . . .
This time I sailed on a slower boat, but gee, we could see the finish . . .
And while the fishing (all agreed) was not great in Tonga (too much pesticide washing down from a society of subsistence farmers?), I learn now that the game got livelier for Relapse en route to Savu Savu. Here’s Cameron with the evidence . . .
One footnote. Most cruisers in the South Pacific pass through, and most getting into October-November head south for Australia or New Zealand. But not all. The two people most responsible for making the Regatta Vava’u & Festival happen are Ben and Lisa Newton, onetime residents of Berkeley, California. Lisa explains: “We sailed from San Francisco in 2002. We spent three years cruising, and after spending a cyclone season here in Vava’u, with one of the best-protected holes in the South Pacific, we fell in love with the island group and the local people. Imagine sailing in consistent tradewinds on lagoon-like waters. Stunning geology. Lots of anchorages. Friendly locals. Marine services. Snorkelling with humpbacks. All in a central location in the South Pacific. We were lacking a regatta here in Vava’u, so in 2009 we created one.”
I guess it makes sense they would have a 42-footer named Waking Dream.