Sep 17, 2021

Strong women setting sail – Talanoa with Aunofo Havea Funaki

Rui Camilo

Where I come from, our culture is very strong, and no one ever did what I did. Some people told me to forget about it and go do something else. When I started working on boats, it was not a passion, it was more to get busy. But later I found out that I am good at what I was doing.

Before I set foot on a boat for the first time, I was weaving. I am a weaver. But then someone asked me to come and give them a hand cleaning boats. I said: ‘Yeah, no problem, I can do it!’ It was a welcome break from sitting down for the weaving. At that time, I was appointed three days for a certain cleaning task, but I managed to do the job in only one day. I did not even want to get paid for three days, I just wanted the work to be done and go get other work done. That’s how they realized my work was good. So I was asked to help out cleaning other boats. The company had a yacht charter. They paid me 10 Pa’anga per day, that is roughly 4 dollars. But the company realized that I am a hard worker. Whatever they threw in my way, I did, instead of moving it to another day.

I never saw another woman working on a boat, and I realized other people staring at me. So I didn’t want anyone to see what I was doing. But at that time, the company had a cook, too, who was paid 50 Pa’anga a day. So I decided to learn how to cook for the guests on board. The boat owner took me to cooking classes, and I was then working on the boat, cleaning and cooking. By that time, I have been on boats for some years, I knew them well and had observed what work had to be done, even sailing and engine issues.

But when I was on board as a cook, at that time there was a captain, and we were arguing a lot. Whenever I knew something about the boat, and told him, he didn’t like that. We argued in our own languages. One day, we were sailing at 21 knots, and he wanted to bring the full sail up. I told him that he can’t do that. We were arguing all the way. So, when we arrived back, I complained. He didn’t want to listen to me, not only because I was a female, but also because I was a cook. This is when I decided that I want to become a captain myself, I want to make the decisions! And it was happening. But over here, the word was spreading that a lady in Vava’u was driving the boat. So, I always hid in a way. It was not a big thing for me. I learned to sail on a monohull, a catamaran, a motorboat. Before the voyage started, I already had a lot of experience.

To get the necessary licences, I had to go back to classes. It was the very first time that the coast guard from New Zealand was giving a course over here in Tonga. Among 23 students, I was the only female. I think all other people in the course were proud, but I was not, I was still hiding, trying to find out where my place is going to be. When the results came from New Zealand, I was the best student in the class, and I received my daytime skipper license. Then followed my boat master and the next step was skipper on a yacht, which I had before the start of the Te Mana O Te Moana. From there, word was spreading, I had gained a reputation and that is why I got a lot of clients for whale watching in the yacht charter that had hired me. And I met so many different people from all of the world. But being on the Vaka was a completely different thing.

At the time I left to join the Te Mana, my youngest child was five. I am mother of five children. I knew I would miss them, but the reason why I got on the Vaka was that I needed to learn new skills, I wanted more experience. I did not go on board to enjoy a voyage; I was there to learn and bring experience back home. The first time on the Vaka, I learned a lot. The Vaka is a lifetime experience. You cannot experience that on any other boat. It makes me peaceful, working together is respectful, we are learning from each other and from each other’s culture. The boat I was on is the Hine Moana, with a multi-national crew. People questioned how we world be able to work together, with ten different nationalities, but we ended up very well.

When we started, Magnus Danbolt was admiral and captain, I was watch captain, Thomson from Vanuatu was our navigator. In 2012, I was the one next to Magnus, so I learned a lot from him. He is the best!

Every canoe has a different energy. They look the same, but you can feel different energies. On our canoe, there was a lot of laughter. Tongans laugh a lot. Even if we are not supposed to. That’s how we are. Even if the ocean is rough and tough, even if it is dangerous out there, we laugh. So, for the whole voyage, no-one ever saw us unhappy.

The Vaka family was getting bigger and bigger, people started to know us. I am so grateful for Okeanos’ vison, and that Okeanos made things really happen. It was a pathway for the different islands back to our traditional navigation, our knowledge and skills and history and stories. Without the voyage, we would never have known each other, and although the voyage is finished, the heart is still broken from missing the Vaka family.