Three days ago a new boat came up on the SSB radio net. Hokura was on passage from New Zealand to Tonga and reported that their engine was dead - they'd just had a new engine intalled but after a few days at sea it started running badly (they have an engine-driven compressor for a freezer so it needs to be run every day) and they discovered the engine sump had water in it. It sounded spookily like the problems which afflicted Stormvogel en-route to Madeira. We volunteered to help, so on Saturday morning sailed out to meet them and towed them into Neifau harbour; as we were coming in we were hailed by a locally-owned trimaran which had lost its propeller and wanted a tow as well! We decided that safety dictated just one boat behind us but we managed to radio for help on their behalf.
Anyway, Hokura, with Kiwi skipper Doug and English Crew Anna and Andy were very pleased to be led safely to a mooring buoy after 12 days at sea. The batteries had barely enough power to operate the fresh water pump and they were pretty tired. Unfortunately for them, Customs and Immigration don't operate at the weekend so they were trapped aboard for a further day and a half, looking longingly at the cafes and bars only a few hundred yards away; we had them over to Maunie for coffee and cake yesterday.
A local voluntary organisation called VEPA (Vava'u Environmental Protection Association) put out a call for help the other day. They were planning a big volunteer clean-up of the harbour quayside area and wanted qualified divers to help with underwater removal of litter and other nasties, so this morning Graham joined the team. There were 9 divers, plus an equal number of shore volunteers, and we retrieved a dismaying amount of cans, bottles, old tyres (Graham found a tractor tyre and a shoreside team hauled it in on a rope), car batteries, even an old car engine. It was fairly tricky diving because the silt soon got disturbed as the diving team worked its way along the shore so visibility was less than a metre in places.
The volunteer team (80% 'Palangis' - the Tongan word for foreigners - plus a few locals) worked hard but frankly it was pretty depressing to find so much crap on the sea bed. One of the VEPA organisers said that they were really fighting a losing battle as the locals just seem to regard the harbour as a handy rubbish dump but she felt that the very public location of the clean-up (right beside the busy market) meant that their efforts would not be ignored so they just hoped that it would force some changes in behaviour.
We asked what would happen to the waste we'd recovered; only aluminium cans are recyled here (well, they are crushed into blocks and sold to other countries with the necessary kit to recycle the material), there's a huge mountain of glass bottles at the municipal dump with no means of recycling it and everything else gets burned (no doubt at low temperatures, releasing all sorts of toxic smoke and gases). Apparently this year there has been a big effort to collect hundreds of rusting, dead cars and vans that were abandoned around the island and they were cut up for scrap and shipped out in containers.
It was good to be able to help out but rather depressing that the clean up job was needed to be done.
As we get to know the place better, it's obvious that local and national government systems here frequently work badly, haphazardly or not at all and it often falls to the ex-pat community (mostly Kiwis, Australians, Americans and Brits) to get things going (which probably causes all sorts of frictions). For example, this year Tonga became the latest place to be infected by Chicken Gunya, a mosquito-borne debilitating illness similar to Denge Fever and tens of thousands of people have been affected - it causes painful swelling of the joints not unlike Arthritis and many people have been almost unable to walk or function. It's said that the Tongan health department was alerted to it by neighbouring nations but put in no preventative measures; people arriving by plane could be carriers of the disease and they then passed it on to the local mosquitos when they got bitten here and the mosquitos then passed it on.
We had no warning of it from any of the Tongan officials when we arrived and it was only the Palangis with the daily VHF radio net that alerted us to use insect repellent when we went ashore. We're told that Fiji, by contrast, is carrying out a full fumigation of all yachts arriving from Tonga and has issued official warnings to all visitors.
So we see more and more evidence of the ex-pat community getting things organised here for themselves. The latest activitity is to get a couple of New Zealand vets to come up and run animal health clinics for two weeks (there are no resident vets); as you'll probably guess, there's a substantial feral population of dogs and cats so they are also doing a lot of neutering. Gunter, the Swiss chef-patron of a local bar was running the VHF radio net this morning and commented that we should take care coming in to town as "there seems to be a lot of de-sexing going on at the moment!"