North Minerva Reef

Photos from Minerva Reef:

Looking back at the entrance to North Minerva Reef. Can you see it? (That's our Aries wind vane's blade in the left hand corner.)

Looking back at the entrance to North Minerva Reef. Can you see it? (Our Aries wind vane blade sticking up on the left.)

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Some of the boats in the fleet anchored inside North Minerva Reef lagoon. All were enjoying this unique experience while waiting to complete the approximately 900 nm passage to New Zealand.

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Low tide over the reef. The ocean is the dark blue to the right in this photo, the lagoon to the left, beyond the people walking on the reef.

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Giant Pacific clam – this photo does not do justice to the iridescent glow of the blue-green lip. This one measured about a foot across and was embedded in the top of the reef. The reef top is mostly level but has many small crevices and “pot holes” so you want to watch where you walk. Every nook and cranny is occupied by small brown sea urchins, sculpin-like fish, crabs and – occasionally – an eel. Lots of shellfish, mostly small mussels. And patches of colorful coral scattered across the surface, which, for some reason, we didn’t seem to get a photo of.

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Can you see the small brown sea urchin?

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Moray Eel in its hidey-hole.

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You can dinghy up to the inner rim of the reef at low tide, hop out and investigate the numerous tide pools. The top is never completely dry, but at low tide it’s shallow enough to walk in, as you can see. At high tide, this is covered by booming surf. The top, exposed to bright sunlight when the tide is out, is mostly brown and covered with soft brown and green organic growth. There are numerous large patches of color dotting the top, though, where there is live coral in this shallow water. Here we have crew from Jade, enough, and Free Spirit. Boats anchored in the lagoon seen in the background.

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Some kids playing in the surf on the ocean side of the reef. Looking northeast in this photo, the closest island is Tonga Tapu, Tonga, which lies 250 nm in the distance.

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Neighborhood social hour…

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…while the kids play as the tide comes in.

Ken (Free Spirit), us, and Geof (enough) on Minerva Reef. It was a bit drier than this at low tide, about 30 minutes earlier.

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Ruth, with our friends Shu-in and Laurent from Galatee. (Remember Galatee? We anchored with them in the small boat basin at Aitutaki and shared the experience of the exciting morning squall.)

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Three of the four kids from S/Vs enough and Jade, in enough’s pretty pea pod dinghy. These two boats cruised together across much of the Pacific so their kids could stay close to play mates.

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Group photo, and more kids; adding Zig Zag from Germany and their toddlers. We have been delighted and a bit surprised by the number of boats with kids cruising across the Pacific.

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One afternoon four of us got together for a game of dominoes on board Free Spirit, hosted by Belinda. Michelle from Jade and Miriam from enough came by Velic to pick up Ruth, who learned how to play Mexican Train dominoes that afternoon.

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On our way to Free Spirit for an afternoon of cut throat dominoes. Miriam brought cupcakes.

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The afternoon we arrived at Minerva Reef, a call went out on the VHF advertising “Pizza at the Reef’ was taking orders. Proceeds to benefit the non-profit Kiwis for Kiwis. Needless to say, Velic was delighted to place an order. Here it comes: Dad driving, and three of the four entrepreneurs – the kids from enough and Jade – delivering our pizza.

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Pizza delivery in the neighborhood at N. Minerva Reef.

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We have seldom enjoyed a pizza more than we did this one. A little bit of boxed red, and the evening was perfect!

Minerva Pizza

We arrived at North Minerva Reef on Sunday, Nov. 13, seven days after we left the anchorage at Port Maurelle in the Vava’u island group of the Kingdom of Tonga. Normally this is about a four day passage. More on why we took seven days to make a four day passage later.

On our approach to North Minerva Reef we could see white breakers on the reef, a band of quiet water indicating the wide pass, and the masts of more than a dozen boats already inside the lagoon. People had seen us coming and we were greeted with horn blasts and cheery waves as we motored slowly through the fleet to drop our anchor on the deep sand bottom.

North Minerva Reef is an ancient circular formation that is about 3 miles across. The island that once was at its center is long gone and all that remains is this ring of coral, formed over hundreds of thousands of years. The reef is almost entirely submerged, although low tide exposes some parts of it that can be explored on foot to the outer edge, where it drops off and disappears into the deep blue below. The interior lagoon has a fairly even sand bottom and is shallow, varying between 15 and 20 meters deep. It’s a great place to stop for a few days while waiting for the next weather window, or simply to enjoy the protection of its beautiful blue lagoon. It’s a bit weird sitting comfortably at anchor in the middle of the ocean, but there it is. We’ve been told the lobsters are plentiful, large, and easy to spot on the reef at low tide, although when Randy went hunting last night by flashlight there were none to be seen. Apparently they come out, and retreat, at certain times or phases of the moon, and we missed the most recent cycle.

But we did not miss all the good eats to be had at North Minerva Reef: The afternoon we arrived a young voice came over the VHF advising all boats here that “Pizza at the Reef” was taking orders for delivery that evening. Yay, pizza! And yay, young entrepreneurs! These kids were selling yummy pizza for $10NZ, all proceeds to benefit the non-profit organization Kiwis for Kiwis. Hot homemade pizza delivered to the boat? And earnings to benefit this most iconic of New Zealand birds? How could we pass that up?? We placed our order and a few hours later, just in time for dinner, dad and three kids zoomed up in an inflatable dinghy with one hot pizza to deliver. It was a real treat, especially for these tired sailors!

So, why did it take us seven days to arrive at North Minerva Reef instead of the normal four days? We left Vava’u with a passage plan that included a possible stop at North Minerva. But we had agreed that if conditions at the entrance weren’t favorable for a stop, OR if we were making such good time that we didn’t want to stop, we would carry on toward Opua. Opua is a port on the north island of New Zealand in the Bay of Islands. It is a popular port of entry for yachts arriving from Tonga, Fiji, and New Caledonia. The rhumb line from Tonga to New Zealand runs northeast-to-southwest. Bear in mind that this course takes you from the tropics down into the mid-latitudes and across a very dynamic area in meteorological terms.

Conventional wisdom holds that sailors should sail a course that follows an arc to the west of this rhumb line over the course of the passage, aiming SW at an imaginary point about 300 nm north of North Cape New Zealand before turning due south for the last 300 miles. This is because when low pressure troughs form west of New Zealand, and they regularly do, the boat can then be sailed on a fast and comfortable reach to her destination on the resulting wind shift to the southwest.

Back to our departure from Tonga: We had a fast sail the first three days and were approaching North Minerva Reef ahead of schedule. We were making such good time that we decided to continue on, accepting that we might run into heavy weather but eager to reach New Zealand and also confident in knowing that Velic handles weather and seas well. And although we were sailing a line west of our planned course, we anticipated a wind change that would allow us to resume a more southerly course in a couple of days. But then the forecast changed. A very large, very deep low pressure area had formed in the Tasman Sea and was heading toward North Island, right into our path. This strong low was packing high winds – 30’s and even low 40 knots – and covered a huge part of the southwestern Pacific. And we would run smack into it in three to four days.

Whoa Nelly.

We were almost 120 nautical miles directly west of North Minerva Reef at this point. Being prudent sailors and not inclined to make either the boat or ourselves suffer unnecessarily, we changed course and made for the barn door.

The heavy weather has arrived over North Cape and is making life uncomfortable down south in New Zealand as I write, but we are sitting comfortably more than 800 miles away, here inside a beautiful lagoon. We’ll stay here until the low is moving east of New Zealand and the new high that we can already see on the weather charts is moving into place. The high will give us favorable winds for the first half of the trip. But we may have to motor a day or two before we get to Opua if we have to cross the center of the high. There is fine weather but little wind near the center of high pressure areas. Our anticipated departure is this Friday, Nov. 18. We hope to be in Opua by next weekend, the 26th or 27th. We might even celebrate a late Thanksgiving Day after we arrive. I’m not sure we can get roast turkey, but we’ll be happy to celebrate! [end]

Goodbye Tonga

We have enjoyed our visit here in Tonga, but it’s time to move on. November 1 marks the official start of the Southern Hemisphere cyclone season, although early cyclones are rare. The forecast is favorable for departing within the next few days, and we want to get going while the going is good. We feel as though we’ve only “scratched the surface” of what there is to see and do in Tonga.

We checked out today (Friday) and then took on duty-free diesel, which is delivered to the dock by tanker truck, but which you can’t buy until after clearing out because the driver has to see the stamp on your papers. But usually, when you clear out you leave. It’s a bit complicated.

We are hanging on the anchor in Port Maurelle (actually a beautiful and isolated cove with flying foxes overhead) for the next 24-48 hours. There is a low trough passing over Tonga, bringing clouds and rain.

Our plan is to sail directly from Vava’u southwest to North Minerva Reef. If the weather conditions are right when we get there, we may stop over for a couple of days. If the conditions aren’t right to enter a coral reef in the middle of the ocean with no landmarks and no buoys, or if we are making good time and the weather ahead looks good for continuing, we may choose to carry on to New Zealand without stopping.

The Minerva Reefs, North and South, are unpopulated reefs that are often awash – there is no land – but the interior is a very large sandy lagoon that can provide a good anchorage for passing yachts wishing to break up a passage. The swimming and snorkeling are said to be among the best in the South Pacific.

Otherwise, we will carry on. All told, it’s ~1400 nautical miles from here to New Zealand. We expect the passage to take around two weeks; longer, if we stop at North Minerva Reef.

We plan to clear into New Zealand at Opua (Ah-POO-ah) near the tip of the North Island. There are other entry ports, but Opua is really well set up for efficiently clearing in numbers of visiting yachts quickly; at least that’s what we’ve been told by people who have “been there, done that.” We hope to do a bit of cruising in the Bay of Islands before sailing on down the east coast to Whangarei (Fan-ga-RAY is the Maori pronunciation), where we have arranged for a haul-out, new bottom paint and other boat work.

AIS transmit has stopped working. So you won’t see us leave Neiafu on MarineTraffic.com. You won’t see us arrive in New Zealand on MarineTraffic.com. Be assured: We do have good GPS position data and AIS is receiving positions of other vessels. We can see them, even if they can’t see us. We will email you when we get settled, take showers, find fresh salads, and get internet.