It was Monday when we pulled up the hook in Tongatapu and, with scant breeze, ghosted west across the inter island waterway, luckily aided by the current. We had delayed our departure waiting for the right weather, as this passage is well known for its challenges and we’d heard that a sailor had just lost his life close to New Zealand after getting it wrong.
We chose to set sail despite the wind being forecast to be forward of the beam, but, as it was calm Karin would not get seasick. For 36 hours it was delightful and we averaged over 5 knots, using the time to stitch in some much need patches on our dinghy’s sun cover.
From the forecast we knew that the wind would turn a full circle back around the compass and my slumber was curtailed at 01:30 on the second night as Moondust reacted to the new wave and wind direction which reached 25kts at 03:00, forcing me to reef down and roll in the genoa a bit. Now we were moving well through the water at around 5-6kts but into adverse conditions of current, waves and wind, thus only making 4 knots over the ground. At dawn we approached Minerva North (there are two reefs about 20nm apart) and finally neared the pass at around 15:00.
There was no land in sight, just the white breakers on the edges of a sea mount that rose from the depths to just below the surface to form an encircling reef, of which a scant few centimetres emerged from the water at low tide. This would form our shelter. We began to see other yachts appear on the chartplotter AIS and heard the odd VHF radio message.
Then ‘New Zealand Air Force Orion’ started transmitting, greeting all the yachties, as the aircraft circled the atoll collecting pre-arrival data for each vessel: name, flag, captain’s name, departure date from Minerva and expected date and port of arrival in New Zealand. It was novel to get this level of attention and we finally saw the plane circling off to starboard, a few hundred feet up!
Entering the pass was simple and we sailed across the lagoon to anchor amongst fifteen other yachts. The distance from Tonga over ground is 260nm and we had sailed 320nm through the water, battling against the current.
Each year Minerva Reef acts as a way station for some of the many boats bound for New Zealand to escape the dangers of hurricanes in the tropics. It was suddenly much cooler, indicative of what to expect in NZ. In preparation Karin had taken out all her warm clothes and washed 21 months of mould out of them.
Perhaps it was our isolation and the sense of common purpose that forged the wonderful community spirit that we experienced at Minerva. We were all proud to have become ‘honorary life members’ of the ‘Minerva Yacht Club’.
One skipper was running his watermaker and offered to make enough for others to fill up empty tanks. A German lady had more honey than she could consume prior to reaching New Zealand and we were happy to take some. One of the yachties organised a daily radio weather chat in which we all participated, getting insights from multiple sources into the chaotic weather for the very unstable area north of New Zealand.
Americans Ian and Sharon on Whey to Go, a 44 foot Leopard Catamaran, offered to host a pot luck evening and rather miraculously 40 odd yachties descended onto their boat. The sumptuous spread of food and drink contributed by all was incredible and we all thoroughly enjoyed the get-together. As we were about to leave I spurred some French sailors into song with a few lines of their national anthem and this led to a few of us ending the evening on the French catamaran where we were entertained by their two musicians, a guitarist and an excellent alto sax player.
The next morning we went off with the young couple on the Texan yacht Zoe and the Kiwis on Ocean Alley to catch crayfish. We arrived ill prepared without the gear we needed, so we formed the ‘reef support unit’ whilst others with wetsuits to protect them from the coral pulled out enough crayfish for all.
We enjoy being in remote places and for us Minerva Reef now best epitomises ‘remote’: a place far off the beaten track that you can only reach with your own boat. Whilst there were quite a few visiting yachts, the absence of local residents means that the sea life is unspoilt and the few fish and lobster that the cruisers pull out in the short season in which they are there doesn’t make an impact.
Our arrival at Minerva Reef coincided with the beginning of a generally fine weather window and whilst some crews preferred to delay departure hoping for optimal weather for their arrival in NZ, we chose to rather utilise the prevailing conditions for our departure, setting sail after two days and hoping that the two high pressure systems coming our way wouldn’t create too much wind in the ‘squash zone’ between them.
The weather for our onward passage indicated no storms but it also looked quite challenging, with southerlies blowing in our face for some time to come. It was about 1500km to our intended port of arrival (Opua) in NZ and we felt fortunate that Moondust is able to sail as close as 40 degrees to the apparent wind.
Minerva Reef to New Zealand
We did well covering 160nm in the first 24 hours even though it was a bit wet and bumpy as we had to sail close-hauled for two days. Fortunately Karin had retained her sea legs and didn’t get seasick.
As the wind turned north we had a morning of pleasant sailing before the wind died down completely and we dropped all sail and just enjoyed the vastness of the ocean.
However, this peace and quiet didn’t last. The next morning we had to weather three squalls before breakfast and the wind, which averaged 25 knots, gusted to 35 knots. It turned out that the winds in the squash zone were much stronger than even our weather router anticipated!
We broke a dyneema genoa sheet in a 35kt gust, but thanks to our previous experience off Guadeloupe we had a spare line rigged and could thus control the sail before it blew out. Then the mainsail sheet traveller pin, which I had watched with alarm as it gradually bent, finally burst out of the traveller with plenty of power in the sail. It would have been disastrous if I hadn’t rigged a dyneema ‘insurance’ line around the traveller in anticipation six months earlier. All we heard was a jerking noise as the backup held perfectly.
As we were afraid of serious damage to Moondust’s sails and rigging, we stopped the boat by heaving-to at lunchtime. However, as we drifted too far downwind we deployed the sea anchor, switched on the anchor light and got some sleep.
The next morning the wind calmed sufficiently for us to get going again, but for three days we had to sail close-hauled at forty degrees of apparent wind, which was hard going. We then had one day of more pleasant sailing at 60 degrees before we were becalmed again for two days some two hundred miles north of New Zealand. Most other cruisers start their engines under these conditions but not Moondust, as Karin loves these days peaceful days on the ocean and we knew that this should precede wind from behind.
Arriving in New Zealand
When the breeze finally arrived we were in flat seas and had two more pleasant days of sailing which took us into Opua Port in the Bay of Islands. On 8th November, 16 days after we left Tonga, we hoisted our yellow Q flag and tied up at the quarantine dock, waiting just a short while for the customs and biosecurity officials to come on board.
We were also visited by the public relations lady from the ultra modern marina who presented us with a gift pack containing whisky, information and various other items of lesser interest.
Learning that the Opua Cruisers’ festival started the next day, we signed up and enjoyed a week of activities, social gatherings and informative lectures, also getting to sample New Zealand beer and interact with other cruisers.
We went aboard a replica of Captain Cook’s boat which visited Opua.
With six months of hurricane season to go before we could head north into the tropics, we felt that we couldn’t have found a better destination for this stopover, especially as Moondust needed plenty of care and maintenance.
With two chandleries just a short dingy ride away I was able to order all the spares I needed and, with Karin away on a three week visit in Cape Town, I had the run of the boat which looked more like a workshop as I tackled the job list.