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.
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]