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Tongans Overseas

Voyage of Vaiufia, ‘super Tongan woman’ mariner

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

Vaiufia Makatu'u Latu, professional mariner on the Bark 'Europa', under sail at the start of an unexpected 82 days South-North Atlantic crossing. Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, 27 March 2020. Photo: Maria Intxaustegi.

By Mary Lyn Fonua.

Photos by Maria Intxaustegi

Like the humpback whales born in Vava'u, Vaiufia Makatu'u Latu, a young Tongan mariner sailing on a tall ship, has worked her way across the Southern Ocean to reach the frozen waters of Antarctica.

Now Vaiufia longs to return to the Port of Refuge, her home at Pangaimotu and her baby son. But an amazing and unexpected voyage has carried her farther away from Tonga, to a European port, where she cannot disembark. In the CoViD-19 world, Vaiufia's pathway home to Vava'u appears to be nowhere on the horizon.

In January this year, Vaiufia (25) joined the crew of a magnificent sailing ship, the Bark Europa, at the port of Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. The 109-year-old vessel is part of a Dutch fleet of tall ships that offers highly coveted expeditions for adventurers, who join as paying trainees.

“We headed down South to Antarctica for a three months trip,” Vaiufia told Matangi Tonga Online.

Bark Europa in Antarctica. 3 March 2020. Photo: Maria Intxaustegi.

Normally, at the end of their season in Antarctica – after working on some of the most dangerous seas in the world and looking after 30 or so sailing trainees, the crew of 16 disembarks at Ushuaia to head home for a rest. Vaiufia, however, intended to stay onboard for a planned South Pacific schedule – her ticket home. But then at the end of March, the whole world changed.

“When we on our way back to Ushuaia, all ports were closed due to coronavirus CoViD-19,” she said.

When the Bark Europa docked in Ushuaia on March 17, Vaiufia tried to organise a flight home to Tonga. “But there were no success. We were not allowed to leave the ship. I have a two-years-old son waiting for me to come home.”

Most of the crew had been onboard for over two months and were quite tired. With all the borders closed, and quarantine in force, the foreign crew had to stay put on the ship, which had to move away from the docks, even though they had been isolated in Antarctica for months. Most of the crew members came from European countries.

Vaiufia pulls her weight on the Bark 'Europa' Antarctica voyage, 13 March 2020. Photo: Maria Intxaustegi.

10,106 nautical miles

So on March 27, after managing to get a few supplies on board, the Bark Europa set sail from Tierra del Fuego for her home port in the Netherlands. The 18 people aboard, from 12 different countries, embarked on an unexpected and non-stop 10,106 nautical miles journey through the Atlantic Ocean from South to North, under sail power, averaging 5 knots.

“So we have been forced to sail the ship back to the Netherlands. It took me 82 days to sail across the ocean with no land to approach,” said Vaiufia. “Limited amount of resources was on our ship for the trip. But we did manage to bring her home safe and sound.”

“On 16 June we arrive in Scheveningen Harbours in the Netherlands and that's where I am right now. I am very, very, very keen to go home to Tonga to be with my son but the government of Tonga is still closed. Not only that, but the New Zealand ports are closed as well,” she said in an email on July 4.

Repatriation flight

This week, Vaiufia confirmed that only two crew remained on board, herself and a Chilean. She talked to Edgar Cocker in the Tonga Prime Minister's Office on Monday. “He was such a nice guy and I was so happy to find someone to talk to about how to get home. I'm a Tongan citizen. He told me there was a repatriation flight to Tonga planned for August 3, but I would have to get to New Zealand by August 1,” she said. “I had to ask Mr Norris in New Zealand immigration [to enter NZ]. I called him but he told me straight up, the answer is no. He sounded like someone who is very busy. So I don't know what is the next step.

“I'm so keen to come home, but I'm totally fine, and safe to stay on this ship. I'm not the only one trying to get back,” said a homesick Vaiufia. Her mother Kaufo'ou and grandmother Petiola are caring for her toddler at Pangaimotu in Vava'u, and she worries what might happen to them if CoViD-19 ever reaches Tonga.

Professional Mariner

Vaiufia has been working on sailing ships for seven years. At the age of 18, she joined the tall ship Picton Castle that called into Vava'u. The captain's family (friends of her family) invited her to work onboard as a nanny. When the tall ship returned to Canada she sailed with them. In Canada she took training courses for sailing and gained her international qualifications as an ordinary seaman.

“Then I went on a scholarship to Denmark to study on a Danish vessel for a year,” she said. In Europe she learned about the famous Bark Europa and set her sights high on joining the crew, and achieved her goal.

Now, she has done three or four seasons on Bark Europa's Antarctica expeditions as a deckhand and also teaches the trainees about sails, ropes and sail handling skills.

Antarctica was “quite cold, but a good experience. Amazing, beautiful and different every time,” Vaiufia said. She has crossed the Drake Passage several times and sailed into the Weddell Sea. “I don't know if I'm the only Tongan who has been there.”

Bark Europa voyage to Antarctica. 2 March 2020. Photo: Maria Intxaustegi

Roaring Forties

The voyage to Antartica followed by the unexpected 82 days trans Atlantic crossing to Europe was documented by a professional photographer Richard Simko, who wrote in his blog: “incredible journey, in spite of many doubts some people ashore had about our capabilities and experience to do so. ...This was a life-changing experience for many of us on so many levels.”

In April, the Bark Europa encountered massive seas in the Atlantic's roaring forties.

“It was quite intense,” said Vaiufia. “50 knots and sails still up. We train up, quite scary but we know what to do. We are professionals. If a problem aloft, we fixed it. The water splashes over and we have a harness on, or it sweeps us off. ...Our ancestors were voyagers, so it must be in my blood!”

Bark Europa in the 'roaring forties', South Atlantic. 8 April 2020. Photo: Maria Intxaustegi.

In May, they were becalmed on the equator.

In June, the Bark Europa ran into a dangerous low-pressure system at the entrance to the English Channel that pushed them toward the Bay of Biscay. When the ship finally arrived in Scheveningen on June 16 the Bark Europa was escorted into the safety of the harbour by small flotilla of sails.

Vaiufia, as a foreign national, can't disembark under The Netherland's CoViD-19 restrictions.

Super Tongan woman

At the start of the voyage, Maria Intxaustegi, an expedition guide, made a video log of Vaiufia working aloft while the ship was quarantined in Ushuaia. Maria told Matangi Tonga today: “Indeed, I was also on the 82 days trip with her in the same watch and I can perfectly confirm that Vaiufia is an amazing, strong and super Tongan woman!”

Links for Vaiufia's voyages on the Bark Europa:

Vai from the end of the world, video by Maria Intxaustegi, March 27, 2020.

Antarctic season 2019-2020 with Bark Europa. Richard Simko. June 29, 2020.

Maria Intxaustegi photographs

Netherlands: Historical ship reaches Europe after sailing from "end of the world". June 16, 2020.