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Old 08-25-2001
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Kristin Sandvik is on a distinguished road
Ladies Only


The author's experience with all-women crews taught her that such groups raise eyebrows from fellow cruisers and customs officials alike.
Women sailing on their own raise eyebrows, all over the world. When I sailed into Vava’u, Tonga’s northernmost island group, as captain of my 37-foot yacht, Hio Avae, Nicki, a 23-year-old Canadian woman, was my only crew. Just the two us—two chicks.

"You the captain?" the customs and quarantine officials always asked skeptically when I handed over my documents in their offices. Each time I answered, "Yup," and their eyebrows shot up.

Not too long ago, 26 women aged 29 to 70, flew into Vava’u and chartered four yachts for two weeks from The Moorings and Sunsail. This entourage quickly became the talk of the islands. Even we South Pacific cruisers were charging the radio waves with chatter about them. We’d nicknamed them the "Chick Fleet."


Tonga offers unrivaled beauty and waters that allow charter crews to push their skills as little or as much as they like.

By coincidence, I met the "Chick Fleet" at anchorage No. 30. (The Moorings has numbered each recommended anchorage, to simplify navigation for charterers who might get confused by the unfamiliar, bouncing Tongan names.) Nicki had left Hio and Tonga to be the maiden of honor in a girlfriend’s wedding back home, so I was sailing solo.

I was ashore on the lush island when three of the four "Chick Fleet" yachts anchored astern of my boat. Before their arrival, Hio had floated alone in the remote bay. A local friend on the beach pointed them out: "See those boats over there? Those boats are all women, like you. Three boats. All women." He raised his eyebrows, and grinned.

The "Chick Fleet" in my anchorage! And a few of them were walking along the far end of the island! I left my friend to his beach-business to catch up with them. I scurried down the beach and over the barnacled reef as fast as my poor, sore, bare feet would take me. Breathlessly, I introduced myself as another chick sailor, and we spent the rest of the day eating, laughing, telling stories.


Another day in Paradise. The chick fleet took advantage of the idyllic surroundings to snorkel, explore, and generally run around loving life.

We raved about the spectacular diving in Vava’u, which features clear water, brilliantly-colored coral and starfish, caves, and the wreck of a copra steamer that sank in 1917. We were especially enchanted by Mariner’s Cave—where locals say a young Tongan nobleman hid his girlfriend from an evil king until he could whisk her away to Fiji.

To get to this misty crystal cave, you have to dive down through an underwater passage. To do this with mask and snorkel, you have to hold your breath just long enough for the swim to feel dangerous. As you pop through into the surprising relief of oxygen, you are rewarded with a remarkable space—a mermaid’s hideaway.

We joked that it would have been tough to be the nobleman’s human girlfriend, waiting, ears constantly pressurized and popped by the rise and fall of the sea inside this cave. Unlike her, we were free to roam. Free to sail! Flat seas, moderate breezes, and the confusing similarity of lush islands made sailing here both comfortable and challenging. The availability and proximity of safe anchorages allowed us to push ourselves—and our sailing skills— as hard or as little as we wanted. We could sail for an hour or three, drop and raise anchor several times a day, picnic here, snorkel there, beachcomb here, visit locals there.

"It was touchingly familiar, the need to explain the existence of the woman sailor on the high seas, unaccompanied by men."

A few anchorages had been particularly memorable:

  • Hunga, anchorage No. 13, where you feel like you’re lolling in the salivating mouth of an ancient volcano—because you are.
  • No. 16, where we bought wonderful fresh bread at "The Lighthouse."
  • Lisa Beach, No. 10, home of Aisea’s funky feast of umu-baked pig, octopus, clams, lobster, fish, papaya, breadfruit, and taro.

The women had avoided the main town, Neiafu, favoring the small villages and uninhabited anchorages. With a population of 5,000, a couple hotels, a handful of restaurants, a bar, and a dance club, Neiafu is the "big city" of thise island group. I urged my new girlfriends to enjoy a delicious dinner at Neiafu’s "Mermaid" restaurant, where children dance three nights a week to raise money for school supplies.

At one point, one of the sailors from the "Chick Fleet" asked me, "What do Tongans think of women traveling alone together?"

I thought about the officials’ response when I showed up to clear customs. In Tonga, locals speak volumes with their eyebrows, and respond to most questions with them. "Is the bank down the road this way?" Eyebrows. "Can I buy batteries at this shop?" Eyebrows. "Is the market open today?" Eyebrows.


No, they're not nurses. They're just single women cruisers attracted to the lure of distant lands and the challenges of sailing to get there.
The gesture could mean "yes", "no", "over there", or, more likely, "I don’t know." In Tonga, it’s better to not answer than to not know. The gesture was contagious. I couldn’t answer the question, so I raised my eyebrows.

"In the Caribbean," she laughed, "they decided we must be nurses." It was touchingly familiar, the need to explain the existence of the woman sailor on the high seas, unaccompanied by men.

We envied one another our adventures. The women of the "Chick Fleet" envied me my cruising life, living aboard and voyaging through the South Pacific in my own sailboat. I envied them being able to enjoy the best of what cruising has to offer without having to worry about the constant maintenance hassles of their vessels.

But we all got to be there. And for one night, we had an anchorage in Tonga all to ourselves. Ladies’ Night! Twenty-one chick sailors got to raise glasses—and eyebrows—on Kenutu Island to celebrate a 60th birthday in Tonga. One way or another, sisters are sailin’ it for themselves!

A "Chick Fleet" of Your Own

Three of the four charter yachts in the "Chick Fleet" were captained by women with sufficient skills and experience to fulfill the charter company’s requirements. Their trip had been coordinated by one woman who said she had a mailing list and was on a mission. She also had the support of the folks at "Women Sail Canada" (http://www.alaska.netsail.ak).

The fourth yacht was captained by a discreet Tongan skipper who raised his eyebrows so often, he must have had a tired forehead. Two of the four women aboard were considering buying a boat together in LA, and thought Tonga might be a good place to test their sea legs.

Both Sunsail and Moorings offer a variety of possibilities to clients: bareboat, skippered, semi-skippered (hire a skipper for a few days of your trip, to orient you to the boat), learn-to-sail (which could qualify you to bareboat in the future), and flotilla trips. For additional information on these opportunities you can visit their websites: www.moorings.com, and www.sunsail.com.

To learn more about sailing in Tonga, check out these websites: www.tongaonline.com, www.vacations.tvb.gov.to.


Suggested Reading:

SWF Seeks Crew by Kristin Sandvik

Water, Water, Everywhere by Tania Aebi

What We Learned Sailing the Pacific by Doreen Gounard

 

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