Friday, June 30, 2017

Heading Down Island

The orange line represents our trip south from Neiafu to Vaka'eitu, then on around the corner to Hunga Haven.
After hanging out in Neiafu for about a week we decided to head south to one of the top rated islands in Tonga, Vaka’eitu.  After a pleasant two-hour motor sail we rounded the corner of Vaka’eitu Island, ever mindful of the small islands and reefs dotting the seascape. There were already four boats anchored, so we squeezed in at the north end of the bay close to an Italian catamaran on one side and a shallow reef on the other. 

It was a beautiful classic crescent-shaped bay, but with a very shallow reef on the beach side. We snorkeled towards the beach and then explored the reefs on the south side of the bay, not tons of fish but enough to make it interesting. In many areas of Tonga the water is not crystal clear like in Bora Bora so snorkeling is kind of hit or miss.

David, a Tongan whose house is on the beach, stopped by the boat and mentioned he was having a Tongan Feast that night and if we’d like to attend. It would be a unique opportunity to try Tongan food and meet the other cruisers in the bay so we signed on. 

Everyone had their backs to the fire since the weather was on the cold side, even though we in the South Pacific.
Since it was only about one foot deep a 100 yards out from the beach getting the dinghies in was a challenge for everyone. We were warmly greeted by David and his wife and shown the BBQ area where a pig was slowly turning on the spit. It seems sometimes the pig is cooked in an underground oven (an emu) or roasted over an open fire. Either way, it smelled delicious.

We meet with cruisers from the other boats, a group of Italians from Milan, Australians from Sydney, and an American couple, Cliff and MaryAnn from San Francisco and MaryAnn’s sister. They were in the market for a larger boat so we talked about the features of Flying Cloud (they came over later the next day to tour the boat).
David and his family with the sumptuous feast.
David’s wife laid out a blue checkered tablecloth covered with local foods, including breadfruit, taro leaf wrapped pork, cole slaw, beef vegetable, calamari, baked fish, potato salad, and a variety of local vegetable dishes. The variety of nationalities you meet at these cruiser functions always amazes me, so many different lifestyles and experiences.

Leaving the feast in the dark was a challenge given the low tide, leaving all the dinghies high and dry on the beach. We had to shanghai Cliff to help us drag our dingy over the coral to a spot deep enough to row back to the boat. A 125 lb. dingy with a 100 lb. outboard plus gas and anchors is not much fun to drag up or down beaches. There are so few sandy beaches in this part of the world that having wheels on the dingy is hardly worth it — except for tonight.

This picture doesn't do the entrance to Hunga Lagoon the justice it deserves
Here's the view from the foredeck where Meryl is on watch for bommies and reefs. You need to squeeze between that large rock on the left and the rocks on the right.

On July 3rd we sailed due south from Vaka’eitu to avoid a long line of reefs, then headed north around the south end of Hunga Island and about one half way up the north side to find a minuscule opening in the rock cliffs to an inner harbor.  This is another of the “not for the faint of heart” entrances with a large rock about 30 ft to the left and a reef an equal distance to the right. You then need to turn to a course of 115 degrees magnetic where the depth immediately drops from 35 ft. to 12 ft (at high tide). Definitely another pucker factor entrance, although the depth quickly increases after to about 100 yards.

The indominatable Barry at Hunga Haven. Barry does the weather on the Cruisers Net each morning and helps everyone in a million ways.
Flying Cloud laying just outside the reef.
We took a buoy just off Hunga Haven, home of Barry and Cindy, two ex-pat Canadians living out their fantasy at this beautiful inner lagoon in Paradise. Best described as a sunken caldera from an ancient volcano, the lagoon is surrounded by green topped cliff faces and low hills. We meet Barry and Cindy the next morning when we went for a short hike into Hunga Village. They are both former real estate agents from Winnipeg enjoying the ex-pat lifestyle and escaping from the Winnipeg winters. Cindy works at an e-commerce web site out of Bali and Barry’s time is fully occupied keeping the back forty free of roaming pigs who dig up everything, kind of like nature’s own rototillers.

Va'ha made this dugout canoe for one of his children but still uses it to commute from the village up to Hunga Haven to trade with the cruisers.
An older Tongan had come by earlier in the day looking for things to trade. His name was Va’ha and he was paddling a homemade dugout canoe. Several times a week he takes his larger boat outside the lagoon for fishing, or works on his plantation where he grows a wide variety of fruits. He returned later in the day with a stalk of bananas, limes, and papayas in trade for some fish hooks. We later met his granddaughter when we walked into the village. She was such a great little salesperson that we bought some more papayas from her.

The trail down to the village and to the Blue Lagoon (the opposite direction).
Tongans live a very modest lifestyle and subsist mainly on a cash economy of farming and fishing
This is Va'ha's granddaughter who chased us down the road to sell us some papayas. 
While our first day in Hunga was sunny and warm, the persistent overcast sky and squally weather returned, making our next day’s hike down to Blue Lagoon less than a pleasurable experience. We had heard the King would be stopping in Hunga Lagoon for an event, but after waiting all the next day he was a no show. I don’t think I’d want to venture out in the stormy weather, either. 

We had tried to arrange a whale swimming trip with a local provider but the thought of bouncing around in 20-25 knot winds and 8 ft. seas dissuaded us. We’ll try again another day when we return to Neiafu.

We had to get up at 6:00 am the next morning to catch the high tide out of the lagoon for the motor sail back up to Neiafu. It really reminded me of  Pacific Northwest sailing except the temperature was still in the low 70s.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Reflections on Cruising and Turning 70

It’s been a challenging month for us. A series of recent incidents drove home how vulnerable we are when we cross oceans and navigate reef-strewn waters. First, our own experience in a nasty storm that caught us off guard, then assisting some very capable cruisers whose engine and steering had conked out, and finally, word that some new friends we’d just had lunch with lost their beautiful boat on a reef in Fiji.  All these people are cruising veterans with 7 to 10 years of bluewater experience. They’ve been there and done that. They’d prepared themselves and their boats as well as possible, and exercised caution in their passages as much as is possible out here, but still met with disaster.

Flying Cloud towing Calypso up to Neiafu Harbor in Vava'u, Tonga.
 The overwhelming reality is that stuff happens. As Captain Ron so eloquently stated, “if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen out there.” And usually, I might add, at 2:30 am during the darkest dark, strongest wind, and biggest waves of the night.

Blue water boats are very well built and incredibly strong, but they have an admirable adversary in the sea and the weather. One wave crashing over the boat exerts the force of tons of wet cement. The highly corrosive salt water gets everywhere, trying to just keep your tools rust free is a challenge — trying to keep delicate computers, navigational equipment and other electronics functioning is almost impossible. And the constant struggle and stress wears down the strongest sailors.

When we embarked on this adventure about five and one-half years ago, I had the confidence of 50 years of sailing experience. I was a former sailboat racer, a fleet champion, and a knower of all things to know about sailing (in my own mind). It took only a month off the coast of Florida, facing down a series of early season hurricanes, to realize how little I really knew and how unprepared we were for ocean sailing. How we survived that first year in the Bahamas and sailing up the east coast to New York is beyond me — sheer luck as much as anything. There is a learning curve and you better assimilate it quickly if you want to survive.

We learned that just keeping all the hundreds of components on the boat (electronics, rigging, sails, pumps, engine, nuts and bolts, and so on) functioning was a full time job. I once heard a quote that from the day a sailboat is launched it is trying to commit suicide. I now know that quote is true. While in the bilge tracking down a problem the other day I saw a sheared bolt with the nut still attached laying on the floor. It could have been left from the day the boat was built, or just sheared off yesterday leaving me to wonder if an important component was now loose and how critical that bolt was. 

Meryl trying to untangle the spaghetti of our staysail lines after the storm.
There are the former engineers who spend every waking hour maintaining their boats, following highly detailed maintenance spreadsheets of everything that needs to be oiled, polished, rotated, changed, etc. I attempt this but am woefully inadequate. There are times when I’m proud of some problem I’ve solved, but many more times when I’m spouting expletives or simply breaking down and crying in a rage of frustration.

The one thing I’m fairly good at is computers and technology, mostly based on being around skilled technicians during my working career, those whose brains I picked at every opportunity. Today I spend most of the day trying keep two iPhones alive whose batteries are on their last legs and upon which we depend for our Internet access. I then had to download the new Ovitel mapping software that utilizes satellite photos to show the position of the boat vis a vis any hazards. It’s written by a Japanese guy and has very few instructions; you kind of have to feel your way through it. Just trying to figure out the four to five various formats that GPS coordinates can take, and modifying them to the needs of each navigation program we use, took hours. 

Next, I discovered that being close to the International Date Line means all our charting software stops about 100 miles west of here, and to get the corresponding charts you need to go 180 degrees around the world and approach from the west. Sounds simple but it isn’t. The day also changes as well as the time. Then I discovered that the chart set we used for our backup iNavX navigation software ended at Tonga and I had to track down the new charts (again 180 degrees away) on the Internet (which as I said is dependent on a pair of failing iPhones). And so it goes.

A very well prepared Island Packet who we’d just met a couple of days ago before they left for Fiji, just came limping back into the harbor today looking askew. We radio’d over and learned that their regulator and alternator had both failed and they couldn’t charge their batteries. They didn’t even mention the 30 knot + winds and 10 foot seas outside the reef. If something needs to be replaced here you are looking at a best case scenario of two to three weeks shipping and an exorbitant bill for the parts, shipping and customs, and that’s if you can find the part in the first place.

So with all that weighing heavily on our minds, we are starting to prepare for our own passage to Fiji, which a very experienced friend of ours says is the most dangerous place in the world to sail. Another friend just wrote a book about her husband’s family’s adventures after they were shipwrecked on a reef just south of Fiji many years ago. Fiji seems to eat boats for breakfast.

The advice sounds so simple:  just watch your charts carefully and keep a good lookout forward for reefs. Except actual paper charts are very hard to find and they were most likely surveyed in the late 1900’s by Capt. Bligh or Captain Cook. The electronic charts are simply copies of the paper charts and are known to be off by 1/4 to 1/2 mile in areas of Fiji. Keeping watch is mandatory, except the frequent squalls and cloudy days virtually eliminate your ability to “see” down into the water, not to mention trying to sail at night when you can only hear the reefs before you hit them.

When you talk about navigation at sea you need to consider that a US Navy vessel with over 200 crew was recently t-boned by a 660-foot freighter off the coast of Japan. With all their electronics, early warning systems, and eyes on the bridge they still managed to collide with a ship the size of a small island. Then think of us with our limited visibility (in the best of weather), our AIS that ships can see from only about 4 miles away, and our ability to disappear in the troughs of the 10-foot seas that sweep our decks.

We will be taking the super conservative northern route that reduces our exposure to reefs until we near Fiji. But then again our friends on Kia Ora had a safe passage to Fiji only to be sunk in a frequently travelled channel when 20-knot following winds, a 3 - 4 knot following current, missing navigation marks, and high tide conspired to eliminate all the “luck” in their equation.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had an incredible time the last five and one/half years cruising over 16,000 miles across three oceans. We’ve braved the strong currents of the Bahamas, the heavily traveled Intercoastal Waterway, the treacherous winds off Columbia, and the wreck strewn reefs of the San Blas islands. We both have a extensive outdoors experience from mountain climbing, whitewater rafting, long distance cycling to flying airplanes and SCUBA diving with things that can eat you. We’ve flown around the world many times, traveled to remote areas, walked the crime-ridden back streets of Nassau, and met a wide variety of people, races, nationalities and religions in the last ten years. 

But there is always a pervasive element of risk and you alway wonder how you will preform when things go sideways. I once mentioned to a friend that I’d like to take the toughest New York gang member and put him on the foredeck during a nighttime storm trying to wrestle in sails in 30-knot winds while the seas wash chest high and knock your feet out from under you. Oh, and do that when you are 70 years old.

We’re getting towards the end of an incredible journey and have treasured every minute of the experience. When we are both old and sitting in wheel chairs in the rest home, we’ll have enough memories to last several lifetimes. We know that if we would have stayed in our former lifestyles we would have atrophied both mentally and physically. We would be in “God’s waiting room” as they say.

It was wonderful to make friends with sailing authors Rick and Jasna on Calypso. Rick came over the very next day to help me diagnose some problems with our transmission.
The true value of this type of experience, however, is simply the people you meet. It’s somewhat of a self-selection process so the conservative, the posers, and the arm chair sailors have been weeded out. You are left with an eclectic group of adventurers, explorers, misanthropes, escapists, and survivalists. If you want to learn about yourself, this is way better than contemplating your navel in yoga classes. And when you are with other crews 24 by 7 for months on end you end up knowing them better than your closest friends at home. They become your new family. And time after time those cruising buddies have been there for us, helping us repair something, giving advice,  sharing tools and parts, and sometimes rescuing us. That’s what makes all this worth the risk and effort.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Fixing, Sewing, and Repairing in Paradise

Vava’u is a beautiful inner harbor, known locally as the Port of Refuge, that is protected in a 360-degree circle and is as calm and placid as a New Hampshire mill pond. We couldn’t have found a more perfect bay to recover from the storm. It was so strange to be sitting in such quiet and peaceful place after having huge waves booming into the boat and throwing us everywhere but Sunday. 

There were only about 25 boats in the harbor when we arrived. It is a very  deep harbor so most boats use commercially available mooring buoys that rent out for between $7 and $15 a day (depending on season).

Our first task in any new port, which was made much easier by Wolf and Kathi, was 1) finding the dingy dock, 2) finding a garbage drop off, 3) finding Internet, 4) finding a good grocery store, and finding guys to help us fix things. The Aquarium, a waterfront cafe once owned by an American couple but now owned by Tongans, satisfied the first three of these needs.

We walked down the short main street of Vava’u to the Digicell office where we got local SIMs and Internet for our iPhones. During our first week in Vava’u the Internet was surprisingly fast (it later changed with the arrival of 22 ARC Around the World Rally boats).

Our friend Franklin with his new wife Tila and her two nieces.
It's been wonderful to be able to talk with Tila to get the inside story on local customs and traditions.
Driving the dingy back to Flying Cloud, I noticed a familiar boat just behind us and yelled out:  “Franklin.”  It was our Texas good ole’ boy computer programming friend Franklin who we’d met in Apataki in the Tuamotus almost a year ago. He had been on his way to the Philippines to find a wife. Well, he lucked out and along the way met a beautiful Tongan woman named Tila who had been working as a waitress at the Aquarium.  Did I say beautiful? Typical of Tongan women, she was tall and quite regal. They had gotten married some time back and are now expecting their first child. We got together with them for dinner that night and got caught up on the last year. So wonderful when you run into old friends unexpectedly in these exotic locations.

Our next priority was getting all the storm-damaged items repaired. The number one focus were the solar panels. Luckily Plastic Plankton delayed their departure by one day so they could help us with the seeming impossible task of remounting the panels. Wolf, a tall and strong Austrian, came over and we analyzed the problem. The four solar panels were still (miraculously) attached to their frame, but the frame had been lifted off the support brackets by a big wave and was now in a vertical position attached to the radar pole by a series of lines and straps. We managed to get a three-point bridle attached to the frame and held from above by the main halyard. Slowly Kathi lowered the panels with the halyard while Wolf, Meryl and I guided them into place on the support brackets. Amazingly it worked! We were missing only one vertical one inch stainless tubing piece, but we substituted a wooden handle from our Plumber’s Helper. Any port in a storm, as they say.

Sailing in a storm for three days with our "sports car spoiler" solar panels was a definite challenge. How they survived all that is beyond me.
Unfortunately we weren’t getting any electricity from the panels, but I figured we’d fight that battle another day.  We took a cab down to the boatyard and found a Ken, a Kiwi fabricator, who had one short piece of one inch stainless tubing, which interestingly enough had been salvaged from a Columbian drug boat that went up on the reef with a 800 kilos of cocaine on board and one dead Columbian. It took us a couple trips back to get it ground down to the right diameter, but we finally got it installed so now the panels where structurally sound. While at the boatyard I also gave Travis, an expat Texan, the carb off our Yamaha Enduro 15hp dingy engine to try and repair (we only get about 75% power from the engine). It's so nice speaking English when you are trying to explain something technical like gunk in the carb.

The next day I took the junction box covers off the bottom of the solar cells so I could read the voltage to see if we had a damaged panel -- which I suspected since one had a couple of small holes in it. Surprisingly all the individual panels checked out. When I took the cover off the last panel water came pouring out (not good) but all the connectors looked clean and non-corroded.  I cleaned them with electrical cleaner and explored some more, finally just barely spotting a third wire hidden beneath two ground connectors that had come disconnected from the terminal. I hooked it back up and instantly we had full power from the panels. Eureka! It was very timely since I had spent the previous day emailing Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, and the US trying to find a replacement panel and having no luck. We really, really dodged a bullet on this because those panels are our main source of electricity on the boat and they would be very expensive to ship to Tonga.

The next project was taking down the main sail and repairing the broken battens. This one really hurt because we had just replaced those two battens (at great expense) when we returned to Raiatea a couple of months ago. They tend to break in heavy weather right near where they enter the car on the mast. I think the angle there is too severe and the sail is not sufficiently reinforced to handle the stress. We put the two old battens back in and reinforced the ends with self amalgamating silicon repair tape, the only thing that might work in the circumstances. If I had some carbon fiber tape I could wrap it around the battens and epoxy it in place, but that stuff is very rare in these parts.  We’ll see how it goes but we’ll probably have to replace them in Fiji.

While at the mast we also reinstalled the 5/8 inch by 2.5 inch stainless gooseneck bolt. The nut now engages with all threads (after I took off the second reefing plate) and we got two spare nuts so I feel much better about that. Having the boom come loose in a storm is a worse case scenario.

We still have to repair the tears in the luff protection cover on the staysail, but will save that project for when we’re in the outer islands and can get the sewing machine up on the deck.

We’re also going through the boat to better secure and stow all the miscellaneous items that become guided missiles when we’re in heavy wind conditions. If it’s not bolted down it will become airborne in a storm.

We also lost a boat hook overboard that we’ll try to replace in Fiji, and have some minor gelcoat damage to the bow from our anchor that we’ll fix in Australia, but other than that the boat came through the storm very well. 

There’s a lot to say about having a heavily constructed boat with strong rigging if you are going to sail the South Pacific.

And we thought we had lots of boat maintenance to do. This 160 ft. former Australian navy research vessel now called Plan B belongs to Brad Pitt (we think). He hasn't come over to say hi yet.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Local Legend

Imagine these steps going on, and on, and on to the top.
With some of our emergency projects out of the way we decided to get off the boat and explore Vava’u. One of our first adventures was the short hike up to Mt. Talau, a beautiful flat topped 430 ft. mountain that dominates the northwest side of Vava’u. With its 300 plus stairs, it was a little bit of a challenge for my left leg which still doesn’t have full mobility, but I hung on to the handrail and made it up to the top. 

This is Neiafu harbor, with the sailboat anchorage just to the right of the picture.
The local legend about why the mountain was flat-topped is quite interesting. Supposedly some Samoans were enjoying the view from their highest mountain and were dismayed to have part of their view blocked by a higher mountain to the south in Tonga. They send down some tevolos (mythical men who can only come out at night) to Tonga to steal the top of the mountain. Hearing the commotion on top of the mountain, some Tongan’s began crowing like roosters thinking it would scare aware the tevolos who would think daylight was coming. But that didn’t work. The tevolos finished cutting off the top of the mountain and were preparing to take it back to Samoa. Then the Tongans said we must call upon on own tevolos, in this case a beautiful woman name Tafakula. She went to the eastern side of the island where the sun was rising, bent over, lifted her skirts, and with the rising sun reflecting off her buttocks she convinced the Samoan tevolos that the sun was up. They dropped the top of the mountain nearby and fled back to Samoa, leaving Mt. Talau with a flat top. Great story that certainly evokes some strong visuals.
The pass into Neiafu Harbor is on the right and the town's new boatyard is just before the bridge on the left.
While in a bit of disarray, there are three lookouts at the top of the mountain that give stunning views to the east and south. It’s amazing to see how much of Tonga is still virgin forest and untouched by agriculture. Hiking back down the mountain we walked back to town and were rewarded by a stop at our favorite ice cream shop for a treat.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Getting Back in the Groove in Vava’u

Vava’u is what’s called a “velcro port” to sailors, you seem to get stuck to it and not want to leave, much like Georgetown in the Exumas and Prickly Bay in Grenada.  There is a morning Cruiser’s Net on VHF 26 at 8:30 that tell’s cruisers about local events and activities and serves as a Q&A board for newbies like us who are trying to locate goods and services.

With over 25 boats in the harbor, in addition to the 22+ World ARC boats, there are crews from all over the world and you never know who you’ll meet at a bar or walking down the street. Another thing that’s amazing about Tonga is the large Kiwi, American, and Canadian expat group that lives here. That makes it so much easier to get advice and get things done.
Lunch with Ken and Julie on Kia Ora at the Falaleu Deli.
We met a couple, Ken and Julie on Kia Ora from Burien, WA, that were moored close to us and had lunch with them the next day.  We went down a residential street to a nondescript blue house called the Falaleu Deli, owned by Bear (I think it’s short for Barry) and his wife from Winnipeg, Canada. Bear makes a mean chicken salad sandwich, along with curing hams, a wide variety of sausages, and generally providing all the delicious meats a cruiser could desire.

This is one of only two Tongan-owned grocery stores (the others are all Chinese-owned) where you can buy everything from tires to bikinis to spam.
Our typical routine in Vava’u has been going to the Tropicana Cafe, where Greg, a expat Kiwi computer whiz has fast Internet and delicious goodies available, then to one of the many small “Chinese” grocery stores where you get a little of what you need at each store, then finishing it off with a short walk up Tu’I Road to one of three ice cream shops where you stand in line with all the Tongan school kids to get a delicious ice cream cone.
Of the three ice cream stands on Tu'I Road, this is definitely the best. Their chocolate (from New Zealand) is amazing.

Calvin runs The Aquarium. We ran into him having chocolate ice cream with his kids. We also learned that along with being a star rugby player, he was also chosen as "Mr. Tahiti" in a beauty contest.
Trace, AKA "Sweet Tea" hangs with us a the ice cream shop along with Calvin and kids.

Having a few beers with Franklin at our favorite hang-out, The Aquarium.
We’ll then most likely end up the day at the Aquarium for a sundowner with other expats to recap the day and talk about our sailing adventures

One morning after the net we were hailed by “Sweet Tea,” an American expat who had been told by church friends in Orlando (Bob and Molly from the cat Bendicita who we had met in Cartagena two years earlier) to keep an eye out for us. Traci and her husband took an early retirement and moved here several years ago for the inexpensive laid back lifestyle. We had lunch with Traci and she was nice enough to take us on a tour of backroads and hidden beaches of Vava’u Island. It really helped us get our bearings for this large and convoluted island. She’s also learning the Tongan language and helped us out a bit. They have one phrase for goodbye if you are the person leaving, another if the other person is leaving, and I’m sure another if both people are leaving. It’s going to take us awhile to pick it up.

Even Paradise has its challenging moments. This was the heaviest rain we'd ever experienced.
This is the closest we even came to sinking our unsinkable dingy. I had to go out in the storm and start bailing.

A short note on Tonga. It is the only South Pacific island to have never been colonized by another country. It is the last remaining Polynesian monarchy and has a highly popular King. The country has over 691 square kilometers of land (171 islands of which only 36 are inhabited) spread over 700,000 square kilometers of ocean. Offshore is the second deepest ocean trench, the Tongan Trench, and waters tend to be very deep around most of the islands. The surrounding waters are rich in fish, including Blue Marlin, Tuna, Wahoo, and Mahi Mahi. Over 102,000 people live in Tonga, with another 90,000 living overseas.
Tongan men wear a taovala, a black skirt often accompanied by a shorter grass skirt wrap.
The Tongans remind me a little of the British, very proud, very reserved, and a little difficult to get to know, but once you know them they are lifelong friends. Most of the little kids love to say “hi” to us when they go by, but the adults are much more reserved. We’ve been fortunate to have Franklin’s wife Tila as a local resource to get more info on the culture here. Like most Polynesian countries, family is the number one priority. Children are raised not only by their parents but by a variety of aunties, uncles, and grandparents, even to the point of living with them at times. Money is a very poor motivator to the Tongans, making it difficult to get things done at times. They are also very religious. Work is prohibited on the Sabbath; men and women dress very conservatively (even when swimming) and the men wear long skirts called taovala.

Locals grow bananas, taro, vanilla, manioke (tapioca) and yams that they sell in the public market.
One thing unique to Tonga are the pigs. Pigs are everywhere. Even though they freely roam the neighborhoods and countryside, apparently everyone knows who owns which pigs.

The country is still a Third World nation with mainly a cash economy and exports based on coconut oil, vanilla, and kava. If you are expecting big fancy resorts like on Bora Bora, this is the wrong place for you. It is common to find resorts and buildings in a decrepit condition, usually from over optimistic investment or hurricane damage. Another thing, the King owns all the land so you can only get 99 year leases on property. 
Whale watching is one of the main tourist attractions for Tonga.

The main tourist attraction is whale watching which begins in June when the humpback whales migrate from Anartica up to their breeding grounds in Tonga. This is the only place in the world where you can actually jump in the water and snorkel with the whales (while using a certified whale guide service). We hope to do this but the timing may be tight. Weather is another plus in Tonga. We’re further south from the equator so the temperature is a nice 80 degrees and getting down to a cool 75 at night.
Flat topped Mt. Talau serves as a beautiful backdrop for this sunset at Vava'u.
The thing we like the most about Tonga is it’s laid back, respectful, and easy going lifestyle. You could not get stressed out here if you tried. If you expect American efficiency in restaurants and other services, this is the wrong place for you. It will happen when it happens, not sooner because you demand it. We sincerely wish we had several months to stay here and explore, but we do need to get moving to Fiji and Australia so we’ll try to enjoy our short stay here as much as possible.