Sailing away for the winter: Tonga aboard a yacht

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focus writer Carol Garden is spending this winter in Tonga aboard a yacht. She tells us how her sailing life started and why she loves it.

Sailing in a cruising yacht is a lifestyle that many Kiwi women enjoy. Most do it with their partners, and lots of couples live aboard their boats for weeks, months or even years.

When I met my husband Phil 11 years ago, he told me very early on that if we were going to have a future together, I had to like sailing. I’d only been on a yacht twice in my life, for tame harbour cruises. It was with trepidation that I set off with him for ten days to Great Barrier Island on the small family yacht, Trentuno.

We had glorious weather, great sailing conditions, and gentle nights in balmy bays, sometimes with no other people around. A stunning display by a pod of dolphins sealed the deal for me – I was hooked. It also helped that I don’t get seasick. Since then we have sailed in Alaska, Vanuatu and the Whitsundays, on other boats. This year we are taking our own boat, Dawn Treader, up to Tonga and Fiji.

Life aboard is simple and mostly relaxing. For the past two years we’ve gone back to Great Barrier Island over the summer, and we had an idyllic six weeks at Whangaroa Harbour in the far north a few years ago. Another memorable sailing holiday was the Hauraki Gulf – including a few days at the Westhaven marina, dining in the Viaduct and catching up with friends. It was the best of both worlds, exploring islands and a few nights off from cooking. Sailing under the Auckland Harbour Bridge was spectacular too.

Simplicity at sea

There are few luxuries on an older yacht, so you learn to be pretty matter of fact about life. A bit like life in an ancient bach, you tend to swim in the sea a lot and rinse off with a solar shower. There is a gas-powered shower inside, but water restrictions mean you keep it for special occasions. My 50th birthday was spent at Deep Water Cove, in the Bay of Islands. We walked out to the lighthouse at Cape Brett (on the cliff by the Hole in the Rock), and as a special treat I had a hot shower followed by chilled champagne in the evening.

There is no hot running water, no dishwasher, no freezer. We boil the jug to do the dishes. Fortunately there’s plenty of time, so it’s no real hardship. This year we upgraded our inverter, which meant we could finally power a toaster, a tiny food processor and a tiny microwave. The toaster is now my favourite appliance, as cooking toast evenly in a slightly dodgy gas oven is challenging at the best of times, but particularly so in rough conditions.

Because our yacht was built by a couple who circumnavigated the world over 9 ½ years, it has a lot of safety features that coastal cruising boats don’t need. There’s a clip-on strap in the galley, designed to keep the cook from flying across the cabin in rough weather. I’ve only had to use it twice. There are hand-holds everywhere, so you can move around relatively safely inside, even when the boat is on a huge lean. We have friends with a much newer boat, which has a roomy, open interior complete with a lounge suite. I was very envious of the space and light, until my friend said she found it hazardous to get across the cabin in anything other than calm conditions. It’s a bit like comparing an old farm house to a brand new home in the suburbs. The farm house is a bit more rugged to suit the needs of the occupants and the environment it is in.

Tropical escape

This year 35 yachts are heading to Tonga to spend the winter in the tropics. It’s a flotilla that goes up every year, with the Island Cruising Association. Many other sailors go up independently, and the Pacific Islands are awash with sail boats from all over the world. My husband went up in 2007 on his brother’s yacht and this year it is our turn. We will all leave from Opua in the Bay of Islands, clear customs and head offshore. It’s 1,000 nautical miles to Tonga, so about 10 days sailing non-stop. We’ll keep in touch with the other boats by radio and share information about weather conditions. It’s a big adventure and we’ve been preparing for a year.

Provisioning a boat for four months is interesting – I’ve stashed 96 toilet rolls in nooks and crannies near our tiny bathroom. I’ve also been accumulating canned foods, dehydrating vegetables, vacuum sealing dry goods and exploring the Asian and Indian supermarkets for interesting foods that will last without refrigeration. (The lady in the Asian supermarket assured me that quail eggs are very nice.) I’ve also bought ghee for cooking, as it doesn’t need to be in the fridge and I’m trying to cut down on carrying too many bottles of olive oil. Canned oil would work better, but the cans are a bit large and awkward for using regularly.

It’s a big adventure, and I’m hoping to come back with a gentle tan and a relaxed mind.