The Sailing Guide to Tonga(c)
The Sailing Guide to Tonga

The Sailing Guide to Tonga


What You Need to Know About Sailing in Tonga

Tonga becomes a hub of yacht activity between May and October, where yachts take their Transpacific journey on their way west. The islands are a must on a sailing itinerary, with a maze of inlets to explore in Vava’u, uninhabited (and new) islands to discover in Ha’apai, and remote islands in The Niuas. Even during the cyclone season, yachts haul up in Vava’u’s Port of Refuge which is one of the safest harbours in the South Pacific. So, find out about the regions to visit, the clearance procedures and the essential restriction information in this complete sailing guide to Tonga.

Tips for Sailing in Tonga

  • Vava’u is the main sailing ground of Tonga where you can find the yacht club at the Mango Cafe
  • You must submit an Advance Notice of Arrival form at least 24 hours before arriving in Tonga
  • You need to check-in and check-out of each island group in Tonga
  • Be aware of the whale interaction restrictions for yachts
  • Tonga recognises the maritime VHF Channel 16 for emergencies

For more details and tips, check out 10 Tips for Sailing in Tonga.

The Sailing Guide to Tonga(c)

Where to Sail in Tonga

Tonga is an ideal addition to a sailing itinerary in the South Pacific. Typically, Transpacific yachts arrive in Tonga on tradewinds from Samoa, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia, while many others arrive from New Zealand. Once you’re in Tonga, there are a few amazing sailing grounds worth exploring.

Sailing in Vava’u

The maze on inlets, islands and reefs makes the Vava’u island group, the second-most northern island group in Tonga, the most popular sailing ground in Tonga – and the South Pacific for that matter. The sheltered waters of the Port of Refuge is a safe haven for sailors, particularly for mooring in the cyclone season.

In Vava’u, you will also find both skippered and bareboat sailing charters. See The Best Tours for Sailing in Vava’u for more information.

Learn more about Vava’u in The Complete Guide to Vava’u.

Sailing in Ha’apai

The central island group, Ha’apai sits between Tongatapu and Vava’u. The scattering of 62 islands makes for an amazing sailing destination, especially with 45 of the islands being uninhabited. The Ha’apai islands require careful navigation.

Find out more about visiting the Ha’apai islands in The Complete Guide to Ha’apai.

Sailing in The Niuas

For a real adventure, why not sail to Tonga’s most remote islands, The Niuas. Made up of three isolated islands, The Niuas are closer to Samoa than they are to the nearest islands in Tonga, Vava’u. Almost the only visitors that get to experience these islands are yachties.

Discover more about visiting The Niuas in The Complete Guide to The Niuas.

The Sailing Guide to Tonga(c)

Clearing Customs in Tonga

Tonga Customs requires that all yachts arriving in Tonga from overseas must submit an Advance Notice of Arrival (Small Craft) form at least 24 hours prior to their ETA. This form can be requested and returned to Yachts who do not submit a form can be fined up to TOP$4,000 and have clearance delayed, withheld or refused.

Ports of Entry in Tonga

The ports of entry in Tonga are as follows:

  • Nuku’alofa, Tongatapu
  • Neiafu, Vava’u
  • Pangai, Ha’apai
  • Falehau, Niuatoputapu
  • Futu, Niuafo’ou

Yacht Clearance Process

On arrival to any port of entry in Tonga, yachts must fly the yellow Q flag and the captain should contact the Harbour Master or Customs on arrival to be given instructions on where to berth. Give permission for officers from the Departments of Health, Agriculture, Immigration and Customs to board the yacht. Be prepared to present your outward clearance from your last port.

Note that clearance in Tonga usually takes quite some time. It’s best to go through clearance Monday to Friday, during office hours (usually 8.30am to 4.30pm, with an hour break around lunch) to avoid overtime fees. Yachts can be cleared on a Saturday at an overtime fee. Yachts cannot be cleared on a Sunday under Tongan law.


Citizens from selected countries get a free 31-day visa upon entry into Tonga. Visas can be extended for up to five months through Immigration offices in Nuku’alofa and Neiafu. Find out more about the visitor visa in Do You Need a Visa to Visit Tonga?

Domestic Cruising Check-in/Check-out

You are required to clear in and out of each island group visited in Tonga, known as a domestic check-in/check-out. For this, you will need a Local Movement Report (Small Craft) and check-in/out at customs at each port of entry. Day sailing within an island group is not restricted.

The Sailing Guide to Tonga(c)

Restrictions for Sailing in Tonga

There are a few restrictions for sailing in Tonga’s waters, from whale swimming to marine reserves. Here are a few restrictions you need to be aware of.

Swimming with Whales

Whales frequent the waters of Tonga every year between June and November. There are strict regulations on whale interactions via non-licensed vessels. It is illegal to swim or kayak with whales unless you are on a licensed boat with a certified guide. You cannot approach the whale any closer than 300m (330 yards) and jet skis are not allowed within 2km (1.2 miles) of the whale. Breaking these laws incur huge fines and could result in visas being cancelled.

Marine Reserves

Like most marine reserves in the world, the marine reserves in Tonga have prohibitions on the collection of shells or marine life, while anchoring is not permitted in or around giant clam reserves.

Marine reserves in Tongatapu include:

  • Hakaumamato Reef
  • Pangaimotu Reef
  • Malinoa Island and Reef
  • Ha’atafu Beach
  • Monuafe Island and Reef
  • Mounu Reef Giant Clam Reserve
  • Muihopohoponga Coastal Reserve on Niutoua

Marine reserves in Vava’u include:

  • The Clan McWilliam Wreck in Neiafu harbour
  • The coral gardens between Nuapapu and Vaketeitu
  • Hunga Lagoon Giant Clam Reserve
  • Neiafu Harbour Giant Clam Reserve
  • Ano Beach Giant Clam Reserve

Waste Disposal

Throwing rubbish in the waters of Tonga is forbidden. Visitors need to carry all waste on board and dispose of it in one of the refuse containers in Faua Wharf (Nuku’alofa), Halaevalu Wharf or at the Moorings Base near the Mango Cafe (Neiafu).


Laura S.

This article was reviewed and published by Laura, editor in chief and co-founder of Tonga Pocket Guide. Since arriving solo in the South Pacific over 10 years ago with nothing but a backpack and a background in journalism, her mission has been to show the world how easy (and awesome) it is to explore a paradise such as Tonga. She knows the islands inside-out and loves sharing tips on how best to experience Tonga’s must-dos and hidden gems. Laura is also editor of several other South Pacific travel guides.

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