Sunday, March 25, 2012

Uh Oh, here comes the next MJO!

We have learned a new weather buzzword sitting here in Tonga during cyclone season... the MJO. We're not sure why we've never heard of this phenomenon, because it does appear to have a big effect on tropical systems brewing up, and it does seem global. From what we understand, the Madden-Julian Oscillation is an area of 'disturbed' weather that slowly circles the globe, around the equator. It comes around about every 40 days or so. I am sure our Florida Hurricane forecasters are watching it during Hurricane Season, but are probably calling it by another name. In the SW Pacific, they call it the MJO.

The last time the MJO was in our area was when Cyclone Cyril popped up overnight, and then was followed a few days later by very strong Cyclone Jasmine. We've been watching the MJO forecast as the wave of wet weather has circled the globe, and knew it was due in our area again soon. Some links are provided below.

A 15-Day GFS Version of the MJO Forecast

One version of the forecast is a series of strip charts. Each chart is a (very small) flat graphic of the world. The top one is the current status. The succeeding ones are forecasts, advancing every 5 days. The green areas of the chart shows the 'rainy weather' that helps brew up the cyclones. It probably causes less than fine weather in the tropics whenever it passes over, and helps spawn cyclones/hurricanes during the Season. The brown areas show dry weather, where it's likely to be more stable weather. It could be a good long-range planning tool for the sailor in the tropics!

Well, the MJO is almost here in the SW Pacific. Today's 10-day GFS forecast (aka GRIB file) shows no less than 4 1000-MB or less Low Pressure areas forming north and west of us, and heading our way. One, spinning up near Vanuatu (off the East coast of Australia), on April 3rd, is down to 975 Mb. That's a pretty deep low. So we're on high alert. We probably won't be doing much diving in the next 10 days!

The more I research this issue, the less I understand! The Weather Guessers are still trying to figure out how to forecast this phenomenon, so all of this is experimental. Below are some helpful links I have found.

40-Day EWP Version of the MJO Forecast

15-Day GFS Version of the MJO Forecast

(note that the 2 above forecasts do not agree)

Australia's MJO Page

Global Tropical Hazards Outlook - This one is my favorite because I understand the graphics and it tries to take into consideration all the wx factors (ENSO, MJO, SOI, La Nina, El Nino, etc)
Hanging out in Tonga for cyclone season!
At 03/24/2012 8:12 PM (utc) our position was 18°42.83'S 174°02.52'W

A Day Trip Around Neiafu

We have been continuing off-season maintenance projects, and a few diving expeditions. But last Monday we took a break from our work and diving, and did an "island tour" of Neiafu.

In his typical fashion, Dave asked every taxi driver he met for quotes and offers, and got a range of propositions, from $100 Tongan per person to $25 Tongan per person. So we finally set up with "Primrose", one of the prominent members of the Neiafu Market, and also a taxi driver, to do an island tour for $25 per person. We squeezed 5 of us (Pimmie+4 of us) into his 2-door Bronco, and spent all day driving around with Primrose. We pretty much drove every inch of developed road in Vavau.

Sherry & Amy with Primrose

We stopped and looked at the small farms that grow the vegetables we see in the market--so we could identify the plants ourselves better.

Taro Fields

We stopped at the Botanical Gardens for a drink, but didn't go inside (we plan to do that on another day). We also saw the airport, and the nice new roads that the Chinese are building for Tonga.

We stopped at one of the 'barns' that the local women meet in to work on their weaving together. They were weaving both floor and wall mats and ta'ovalas (a finely woven mat that is wrapped around the waist and tied with a rope--the Tongan equivalent of wearing a tie). Wikipedia comments on Ta'ovala.

The Tongan Equivalent of a Sewing Circle

This is actually an article of dress clothing in Tonga

We stopped at the largest Kava processing plant in Neiafu.

The Kava Processing "Plant"

Kava is a plant that is harvested for its root and stem. When powdered and then 'brewed', it makes a mild narcotic drink that is a traditional ceremonial drink in Tonga and Fiji. (More on Kava ceremonies when we get to Fiji). Kava is a much better cash crop these days than Copra (dried cocounut harvested for coconut oil). Wikipedia on Kava

Kava Growing

Kava Chips Drying

The Kava Crusher

Powdered Kava Ready to Bag

One unexpected highlight was a short stop at a lookout place that happened to be next to an elementary school. The kids were at recess, and when we waved to them, they rushed to the fence and all waved at us eagerly.

School Kids at Recess

Roger from s/v Shango wanted to give a few of them a "high five". Little did he know that they ALL wanted to high five!!

Roger High Fiving the Whole School

As we drove away, we commented to Primrose that, in America, we probably would have been arrested for loitering about a school yard... sigh... it was hard explaining that one fully to Primrose.

It was a worthwhile day, especially for the chance to get a Tongan perspective on things, from someone who speaks pretty good English. Here are a few other random pictures we took on the 'tour'.

A Typical Local Boat, used for both Fishing and Ferry Duties

A Methodist Church High on a Hill in a Small Town--With "Stained Glass" Windows

Tongan Version of an Auto Parts Store

A Lovely Tongan Gravesite With the Best View on Neiafu

This was also the day they announced that the King of Tonga had passed away unexpectedly in Hong Kong. So in addition to Pimmie's comments on all things Tongan in Neiafu, we got an up-close perspective on the King's passing, his likely successor, and what the funeral will be like.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

We heard on Monday morning that the current King of Tonga, King George Tupou V, aged 63, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday afternoon in Hong Kong.

The Late King George Tupou V

I had just been reading an account from cruising friends of ours, in the SSCA Bulletin, about their experiences in Tonga when the previous King (George Tupou IV) had died. So the timing was uncanny.

The Kingdom of Tonga is a 'democratic monarchy', similar to England. There is a King and he represents Tonga, but there is also an elected Parliament. It took 2-3 days before the 'government' announced exactly what would happen for the funeral. The funeral is this coming Tuesday. The King's body will be flown in from Hong Kong on Monday, and transported by car from the airport to the royal estate. From there, in traditional fashion, the King's body will be loaded on a bier and carried on the shoulders of 140 Tongan men, to where he will lie in state until the funeral on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the clans scattered throughout Tonga are preparing to make their way, bearing huge amounts of food, to the capital city of Tongatapu, for the funeral and the funeral feast. We understand that all flights from Neiafu to the capital are fully booked, and they are sending a special ferry through the islands to bring the people to the funeral. They announced on the VHF this morning that the ferry will arrive today, and take on 400 passengers (plus their pigs, cows, and huge baskets of Tongan vegetables). Each clan has a specific role in the funeral preparations. For example, one clan is responsible for the cooking of the feast, another for setting up the venue, etc.

They announced on Friday morning here, that the market and most of the town will be closed on Monday and Tuesday, so there was a huge rush for groceries on Friday. But there wasn't much on sale at the market on Friday morning... we assume it has been held back for their own feasting, both in Tongatapu and locally. Fortunately, we were already pretty well stocked.

We understand that the official mourning period has been set for 90 days. But the ex-pats in Neiafu said that things here will return mostly to normal after this coming week.

We understand that it may take nearly a year before the new king, King George Tupou VI, is actually crowned. The recent king was unmarried and had no children, so his younger brother has been named the successor. However, there is an important, but unofficial kava ceremony scheduled for Saturday with the new king, and the heads of the Tongan noble families.

I am sure there is a Tongan news website, but I have been unable to find one. We've been getting our news bits from the local VHF net, and from Radio New Zealand International

Monday, March 12, 2012

Diving and Exploring Vavau

As our little world has slowly been pieced back together after TC Cyril, and while we are waiting for our shipment of fiberglass supplies from NZ, we have been doing a lot of diving, and exploring of the Vavau area of Tonga.

Riki's Small But Fast Dive Boat

We have made a nice connection with a very small dive operation here called Riki Tiki Tours. Riki is a Kiwi who settled here in Tonga about 15 years ago. Right now, in the off-season, Riki is the only dive operation actually open/operating. All the other dive operators are either off-island, or are in "maintenance mode" with equipment down or shipped off to NZ for refurbishment.

A Typical Vavau Wall Dive

Riki has 2 dive boats--one that accommodates 1-2 people, and another that will squeeze 6 friendly people in. He specializes in taking out the small groups of divers that don't interest the bigger operators, and the 'budget divers'. He has a compressor, and 6-8 sets of dive gear in good shape. Dave bargained with Riki for a good off-season price, if we can fill his 6-person boat. So we have been going out with Shango and Sea Flyer on Riki's boat for a 2-tank dive once a week. We have gotten a chance to see most of the popular dive sites near Neiafu with Riki.

An Anemone Garden on Top of a Coral Bommie

Here's Riki's website:

In addition, on the weekends, when the weather is good, we have been going out exploring on our own, and doing a little diving out of our dinghies. We have so far been to anchorages at Mala (#6), Mounu (#40), Euakafa (#32), and Taunga (#23). They are all very pretty, but most have the typical problem in Tonga that the bottom is coral or sheet-rock and/or the anchorage is exposed (settled weather only).

A Crinoid in Full Bloom

(it is actually an animal, not a plant)

Huge Live Coral Heads

After all the dead coral in Fr Poly, this is nice to see

A Lionfish Out Swimming Around

Dave Caught This Tiny Red Pipefish in a Cave

A Clown Triggerfish

I hope to add comments from our personal experience in my growing Tonga Compendium about our experiences at these anchorages. (see for the latest version of the Tonga Compendium).

I am continuing to refine and add our personal experiences to the Vavau Dive Sites information, here:

This is still a major work in progress--we are adding our own dive sites, and photos, as well as spiffing up the entire package (ie Google Maps).

The weather is nice now, but the long range forecast indicates maybe one more bout of unsettled weather next weekend, as the Madden Julian Oscillation ripples over the Tonga area again. (The weather gurus say the MJO was responsible for TC Cyril's sudden appearance about a month ago). We are holding off putting our sails back on until after that goes by. Until then, we are enjoying ourselves, but as a motor yacht.

Dinghy motor update: Dave is still wrestling with his beloved 5hp Nissan motor. He thought he had it finally fixed--it ran perfectly one evening for a trip across Neiafu Harbor for dinner, but then wouldn't start for the trip back. We ended up rowing back across the harbor in the moonlight. Fortunately the wind was only about 10 knots and not against us. There is an intermittant electrical issue that he just hasn't been able to run down. It either starts immediately and runs great, or it won't--no spark at all.

At 03/11/2012 7:52 PM (utc) our position was 18°45.17'S 174°02.28'W

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Progress on Repairs

Well, the weather has continued "mostly fine" (as is reported by the Tonga Met Service). We have made a lot of progress on our repairs.

Dave Gluing the Interior Patch with 3M 5200

- The dinghy is fully patched and back in operation
- The 5HP outboard is back together, but still has some problems
- The Monitor Wind Vane has been straightened and re-mounted
- Our port stern rail has been removed and is in to the welder for repairs
- Our order for epoxy and other repair material has finally left NZ

Dave and the Welder Mounting the Monitor Wind Vane

Dave has spent a LOT of time working on the small outboard motor--the one that was on the dinghy during the cyclone, and which got broken in half and sunk. This is a 19 year old Nissan 5HP, which Dave has owned since he bought it used in 1998. It has been a reliable motor, and Dave is very attached to it. When we recovered the pieces from the bottom after the storm, I assumed they'd go in the dumpster. But Larry on the Ark Gallery (whom we were renting the mooring from) said he had a couple of non-working Nissans in his storage unit, and he said he could supply a usable frame, and get his local mechanic to swap the broken pieces and get it working again.

Dave Taking the 5HP Outboard Apart Again

After 2 tries, the motor was returned to us, fully assembled and supposedly working. It did start at least once after we got it back, but the next time we tried to start it, it wouldn't start. So Dave has been fiddling with it in his spare time. It has been on and off the dinghy several times in the last few days--first with fuel issues, and now with electrical/spark issues. Fortunately, we have a nearly a full array of spare electrical parts for this motor, so I am confident Dave will get it working reliably again soon. We returned the loaner dinghy and outboard to the Ark Gallery last weekend, and we're using our 15HP motor on our dinghy in the meantime.

While the weather has stayed nice, we have been taking time to dive and explore the Vavau area. I have also been given a set of waypoints for dive spots around Vavau, and have been working on publishing them so all the cruisers coming this year can take advantage of them. The beginnings of my 'Diving Vavau' site is here: