Neiafu, ‘Uta Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga

“Do pigs eat egg shells?”

This was answered by a shake of the head.

“No. They are too crunchy.”

It was 7:30 in the morning. The kettle hadn’t even boiled yet. I stood, broken egg shell in hand, beside the bin labelled, “Place all food scraps here for pigs” above a pink cartoon of a large porker.

Here was this lovely Tongan lady trying to help this rather confused palangi out of a predicament.

It makes sense that pigs won’t eat egg shells. I don’t eat them either. People are correct when they say pigs are smart.

“And they are not essential food.”

The location is the kitchen of Adventure Backpackers, a great place to stay in Neiafu, capital of the Vava’u Island Group. There is a pancake recipe written in black marker on the wall beside the large refrigerator, courtesy of unknown previous visitors, Nicky and Josh. The recipe calls for one egg. Thanks whoever you are; your recipe makes delicious pancakes. We ate all of them; the pigs didn’t score any.

Hold it. Why do I care what pigs eat and don’t eat? I thought back as I stirred my coffee and narrowed it down to one word: sailing. Sailing is why we ended up being here long enough to get this deep into the groove.

Neiafu sits on the edge of the Port of Refuge, one of the most beautiful, protected harbours in the world. Some 400 to 600 yachts arrive here annually, resting and taking on supplies after their lengthy trans-Pacific crossing, or as part of an exploratory adventure amongst the islands of the South Pacific.

It feels rather flattering, in a weird sense, when you are first asked by the market vendors if you are on a yacht. Do I look like the kind of independently wealthy person who has nothing to do but sail around the world all day?

It makes you want to adjust your sunglasses … until you discover why you are being asked.

Yachties develop a distinctly characteristic casual-yet-wrinkled appearance as a result of their cramped living quarters. It seems backpackers are able to duplicate this highly desirable, trendy look to perfection. Recently unrolled, quick-dry pants that convert into shorts simply scream out “Yes! I’ve been crammed into a small space far too long!”

There are so many yachties strolling around town that Friday nights during peak season the folks at a bar called both The Mermaid and The Yacht Club hold a friendly race.

This funky bar sits over the Port of Refuge and has its own dock. Landlubbers stop in – by virtue of a twisted path that is only sometimes cement – to see if any captains are looking for crew, or just passengers to go along for the ride.

This is how we found ourselves aboard the Ratbag, a 60-plus foot scaled-down wooden replica of an old American fishing boat en route from New Zealand to Fiji. Given its large size, many sails and not-exactly-racing design, the Ratbagwas given a generous handicap.

During what turned out to be the windiest race of the season, some on deck had water up to their waists as we madly tacked into the wind, creaking and heeling.

Attempting to follow the boaters’ mandate “One hand for you, one hand for the boat”, we resisted the urge to hug the masts and hang on for dear life. Seasoned ocean-crossers ignored the whole issue, a cigarette in one hand, a beer in the other.

Following the race’s dramatic finish, everyone returned to The Mermaid for a few ice-cold Mata Makas. All participating yachts received a prize for one thing or another, local businesses being generous sponsors.

The music from a loop of ’70s and ’80s hits carried out over the harbour. A deeply tanned yachtie in a photo-worthy crushed shirt, easy-care shorts and bare feet appeared at our table carrying a white plastic chair.

He squeezed into a spot and sat down. Leaning across the table, he extended his hand and yelled over the din.

“Hey, I hear you guys are from Whitehorse. Hi, my name is Steve. I live in Anchorage.”

Steve was feeling a bit homesick after a three-week crossing of the Pacific Ocean in his 38-foot sailboat. He didn’t want to talk about masts, charts, waves, wind, or the pure joy of fresh lettuce.

He wanted to talk about the North, about snow, about mountains, about great big spaces. He bought us a beer.

Steve invited us to go sailing. We extended our stay.