09 – 19 November 2016: North Minerva Reef ~ 23 37S 178 54W
Our Passage South from Tonga
There was a mass exodus from Big Mama’s anchorage off Pangaimotu Island, Tongatapu on this partly cloudy Wednesday morning in November. Several of us had gathered at Big Mama’s the previous evening for the “last supper” (whoops! we were an hour late as we hadn’t changed our clocks to Tongan Summer time, didn’t seem worth it for 2 days)
The consensus was unchanged – Wednesday and Thursday were the best days to sail to Minerva Reef, 270 miles south. The winds would be out of the south-south-east but light, the swell under a metre, the skies partly cloudy, the moon waxing in the final quarter- ah perfect!
When we got up at 7am the first 3 boats had already left and we could see them slipping out of the pass to the east. A couple more left soon after, they exited via the north pass. When we left at 9.30am we had Randivag in front of us and Windance III behind us, we all went out the western pass. Funny how we all have different tactics to get to the same place! 3 more left in the afternoon, the mass exodus was underway.
Day One was somewhat more lively than expected, funny that, we really should know better by now. The winds were 15 – 18 knots in front of the beam so we sailed as close to the wind as we could without becoming a submarine, the waves crashed over the bow frequently ~ on a positive note the teak deck got a very thorough water blasting, but the clean stainless steel got thoroughly covered in salt – yet again!
Day Two conditions were far more favourable, the wind eased to around 12 knots, much more comfortable and lovely sailing on the wind.
Just after dawn on Day Three we were amongst the leaders in the procession of yachts arriving, not just the 12 we knew about but more floated in directly from Vava’u and the Ha’apai, it was party time in this very remote paradise. The clouds parted, and daylight exposed this mid ocean masterpiece. North Minerva Reef is like a donut with a little piece nibbled out of the west side to allow entry into the inside ring. You can anchor almost anywhere in here but we all headed up to the Northern end for the best protection for the next few days.
Boats just kept arriving, we peaked at 26, one of the busiest anchorages we had been in for a while. The “promised” weather window to migrate south was still developing and no one wanted to miss out !! Meanwhile the weather was perfect here while we listened to the reports of gales buffeting northern New Zealand and temperatures of 10c in our homeland. No one was in a hurry to leave this last slice of the tropics!
The Water Has Got Cold!
We dinghied in company with Confidence and Gypsy Heart to the reef entry to snorkel the pass. Definitely something to do in company as you don’t want to break down out here alone with the closest land 270 miles away! Jumping overboard took our breath away, the water temperature felt freezing initially but it wasn’t so bad once we adjusted to it. We saw live colourful coral, thousands of Sergent-Majors, several white tipped sharks, a brown puffer fish (with a happy looking face on top if you look at the photo again) and several dinner sized fish down in the depths.
One afternoon there was a buzz of activity as we were overflown by the New Zealand Air Force Orion. VHF Channel 16 burst into (official) life as we were all asked to provide our boat names for them. They circled a couple of times, were very friendly and professional, wished us all a safe sail then flew off into the sun. It was reassuring to know we were being watched!
Pizza Delivery in Paradise
The days passed by, a couple of boats left but were replaced by late runners from Tonga. There were 7 boats with children onboard so there was a holiday atmosphere as endless activities were planned to keep them all amused. Michelle on Jade risked total chaos in her galley when she had 8 children making pizza dough one afternoon. Early the next evening Pizza on the Reef delivered piping hot pizzas to the yachts that had pre-ordered, unfortunately we had moved anchorage so missed out. All proceeds were donated to a Kiwi Sanctuary in Whangarei, well done to all the budding pizza chefs!
The snorkelling inside the reef edge was very good and walks on the reef were popular at low tide, especially on the eastern and southern reefs which dried completely. The reef was vast, about 400 metres deep and in places flat and even enough to run along or even ride a bike ~ no we didn’t take our bikes ashore!
On the seaward side there were hundreds of indentations along the edge, full of hidey holes for dinner sized fish and lobsters. Those with spear guns would catch enough to feed everyone in a matter of minutes, and were happy to share them around. We had a very good diet of fresh fish and lobster during our stay.
We moved around the inside of the reef as the winds changed direction and ended up enjoying 3 anchorages, it was surprising how different the reef was at low tide in the various spots, great to have time to see it all. We even found the sand cay inside the southern curve, you had to be quick though, it only dried for about 2 hours each low tide.
The promised weather window of a big slow moving high continued to develop although shortened slightly by a mild low that was to follow.
The slower boats in the fleet started to eye up a departure a day before the rest of us so they could arrive into Opua in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands before the low, this meant however that they would leave Minerva and beat into a 20 knot sou’wester and 3 metre swell for the first day, the remnants of the big low we were waiting to pass ~ yuk. One boat left and soon after there was a steady trickle heading for the pass. Half the fleet did go and reported a bouncy first night and little gain of their distance to Opua. The rest of us enjoyed another peaceful and calm night in our remote Pacific paradise, the last night at anchor on our amazing voyage ~ what a spot to end it all.
All good things do have to come to an end, this was a major ending for us and 3 other kiwi boats though, we were all on the last leg of our circumnavigation of this huge planet.
Next morning we completed our final preparations for our passage home and lifted anchor at 7.30am. We were the second yacht to exit the pass out of North Minerva that morning, by 11.30am the last had left, peace returned to this outstanding tiny speck in the South Pacific.
There Is Nowhere Else To Stop – We Are Going Home