North Minerva Reef, South Pacific Saturday 9 November 2019
Overheard on the VHF radio:
“Hey, we heard you went diving off the reef. What was it like?”
“It’s very sharky and there are big shoals of fish. I spear fished a trevally and was suddenly surrounded by huge bull sharks. They were so close they bumped us and we had to physically push them off and get out of the water quick. Dive in a group and have a boat as top cover.”
Minerva Reef is a potentially dangerous reef and yacht ‘parking lot’ slap bang in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. It’s a staging post for yachts sailing to New Zealand.
Austere and beautiful there is nothing to see but a multi blue and grey sky and cobalt water changing to aquamarine by the surrounding reef.
Wreck remnants stick out of the water. And large hunting sharks cruise by.
The Big Passage South: Stage One
We set sail for Minerva Reef from Tongatapu in the Kingdom of Tonga on Monday 4 November. Our open water destination was 280 miles south west.
But it wasn’t plain sailing …. ⛵️
During a routine rig check we noticed our port side forward lower shroud had snapped a strand.
This in itself wasn’t a catastrophe and we secured it with help from our yachtie friends on Karma.
BUT it did raise concern about the rest of the rigging … it holds the mast up … and we didn’t want to put Baggy into strong winds in a delicate state.
We could get things fixed in New Zealand, but we had to get there safely first. So, we chose our weather slot carefully, but still encountered big seas.
Galley ‘master chef’ creations were out of the question. We rock and rolled for three long nights but made fast passage and had to slow our arrival to coincide with the morning light.
In the distance we had spotted a cluster of five tiny mast lights and as dawn broke we saw the first breakers on North Minerva Reef.
Following the chart plotter, and with careful eyeball navigation, we made our way through a 200 metre wide pass on its north west side and entered an eerily calm, giant lagoon.
Safely anchored on sand in 12 metres of water we waited for our next weather window to sail to New Zealand.
By the time we left 21 yachts were bobbing about and looking to see who would make the first escape bid.
Dinghys were launched and a community of yachties were soon kite surfing, snorkelling, diving and swopping fish.
But we didn’t go diving. We were a LONG way from help and it wasn’t worth the risk. And anticipation of the passage ahead made it hard for us to relax.
After the steady tradewind conditions of the last twelve months this passage had the potential to spring a nasty weather surprise. The cyclone season officially started on 1 November so it was imperative to get south … but leave too early and there was a likelihood of meeting a late spring gale off the coast of New Zealand.
This conundrum leaves yachts anchored at Minerva Reef gazing into the weather crystal ball for the perfect passage weather window. Sometimes for weeks!
The Big Passage South: Stage Two
After three days we went for it and made a lone escape bid from our safe haven.
We paid extra attention to our safety plans and our strategy was to nurse Baggy through the passage and try not to put too much strain on her.
We set a rumb line course for New Zealand and, based on the wind predictions, calculated it would take us around eight days.
The sea had its own plans for us
After a cracking start we faced frustrating southerly headwinds which meant we had to tack away from our rumb line in order to make progress. Then big swells picked up, smashing hard into Baggys bow.
At one point we were heading straight for the rocky islands of the Kermadec Ridge … and we didn’t want to hit them in the middle of the night.
Our planned eight day voyage was going to be longer. Food stocks were already low and we had a limited water supply on board.
Nature sent us seven special treats
1 A giant green plankton bloom mysteriously moving with a life of its own.
The moon was so bright it turned our nights into silver days and signalled the start of our three hours on, three hours off watch system.
3 Early morning biblical rain showers for deck scrubs and hand washing.
4 Fishing sea birds effortlessly soaring in and out of the deep swell troughs and an albatross the size of a small hang-glider.
5 Mesmerising cloud formations.
6 Fiery sunsets and sharp orange sunrises.
7 A super-pod of leaping dolphins.
It was glorious, wild and free … until … the wind died off completely and we were forced to turn the engine on.
With a broken auto helm this meant continual hand steering. But, we took it in turns and the sleep deprived days gave the passage a dreamlike quality. It was the perfect opportunity to read the brilliant and profound book ‘A New Earth’ by Eckart Tolle.
And I became a obsessed with trying to make the food last.
New Zealand bio security is strict.
We couldn’t bring in any fresh food, including cheese and butter and needed to declare what we had on board … from Pauls tinned meat and trainers, to seashells and tents, scuba kit, woven straw items, wood carvings and all seeds.
We drastically ran down our food stocks; kept a list of every food item on board … and our last breakfast before clearing customs was a smorgasbord of crackers, home made flat breads, cucumber, laughing cows, grated longlife cheese, vegemite, peanut butter, mung bean sprouts and two trays of fresh cress!!
Typical passage banter …
“Raisins are rationed to ten each a day … can I have your raisins?”
“Eat more bananas … have you had your banana? … have another banana … mash it on toast … let’s make banana bread … I’m sick of bananas”
“You can only have three cups of builders tea a day 😱“
“Onions are on half rations for two days, then it’s the dried packets.”
“We’re allowed an 1/8th of that cucumber portion each.”
“Put cress on everything we’ve got to use the seeds up.”
“We’re allowed one fresh tomato and one clove of garlic a day … can I share your tomato?”
“The water melon’s ready to eat. It’s thrown itself on the floor and split in half.”
AND THEN … after two days of tacking, snail pace progress, sleep deprivation and food madness we were relieved from our misery by a fresh north westerly breeze.
Baggy was back in the game and we flew straight towards New Zealand at seven knots.
Exactly 840 miles, nine days and 2.5 total days of motoring later we arrived in New Zealand.
In total we had sailed 14,500 nautical miles … over 18 months … and successfully reached the other side of the world 🌎 🔱💙⛵️🍻🌊🌈🌤🐬
So … what now?
We checked in with the friendly customs and bio security officers at Marsden Cove. Our popcorn was confiscated and that was it.
Baggy is now safely tucked up in Whangarei Riverside Drive Marina on the east coast of North Island till mid January.
Baggy’s marina on the Hatea River: with ducks, cormorants and leaping mullet
And we’ll be in New Zealand till the cyclone season has almost passed, which is around March 2020.
A long list of boat jobs is going to keep us busy. And we need to give ourselves and all our kit a good MOT too. We have a mould issue!
Then we’re off exploring … and will start hatching plans for the long sail back home.
2020 – 2021 Australia, Indonesia, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, Rodrigues, Mauritius, Reunion Island, South Africa, Namibia, St Helena, Ascension and the Azores … are out there waiting for us!