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Nuku'alofa, Tonga to New Zealand Passage Log

Written by Cathy Siegismund
November 2001

Friday, November 2 we checked out of Tonga and filled our fuel tank and jerry jugs. On Saturday, we moved the boat from the quay to an anchorage by a motu. There I finished some pre-passage cooking and Ken scrubbed the bottom of the boat. We had a last tropical get together with Rainsong and Layla before the passage to New Zealand. The founders of the 2001 Seattle Geek SSB net, also made time for a little game of Delta Force

Ken, Drew, and Jason geeking out with a little Delta Force on Layla

We left Tongatapu at 0630 on Sunday, November 4. We had received a weather forecast from Bob McDavitt, weather guru in New Zealand, which had said it wasn't a good time to go all the way to New Zealand, but if we could make it to Minerva by Wednesday, we could go that far.

Passage from Nuku'alofa, Tonga to Opua, New Zealand via Minerva Reef

We set off with Layla and Rainsong right behind us. We had good wind and had quite a fast and not unpleasant 2 1/2- day passage covering the 275-miles to North Minerva Reef.

North and South Minerva Reefs are two nearly submerged reefs that sit about 300-miles from anywhere. There is no land or island, only a reef that is barley awash at low tide and is shallowly submerged at high tide. Fortunately, these reefs have passes and provide a convenient stop for boats making the trip between New Zealand and the tropics; Minerva even provided a safe haven to some boats during the infamous Queen's Birthday Storm.

The passage to and from New Zealand can be a nasty one, with the series of lows and highs that quickly march across this stretch of ocean. Looking for a decent weather window for an 1,100-mile passage with only 5-day weather forecasts and 3-day weather faxes is tricky. By stopping at Minerva, yachts cut almost 300-miles off the passage, then using the 5-day forecasts to plan a 800-mile trip is a bit easier.

We arrived in North Minerva on Tuesday, November 6. Layla had arrived a few hours before and Rainsong followed us through the pass. The reef was clearly charted on our electronic charts, so the entrance was straight forward. It is a very odd sight to see 20 boats anchored in the middle of the ocean with no land.

Cruisers anchored at North Minerva Reef with the reef and breakers barely visible

Looking out to sea from North Minerva Reef - yes, it looks like this in all directions

We dropped the hook in about 40 feet of water had some lunch and took a post-passage nap. Although Layla, Rainsong and we were all in the same anchorage, we were a little perplexed at how to visit as none of us wanted to put our dinghies in the water. Tam and Jason had decided to lay low, so despite the 20 knots of wind and short chop that was blowing over the reef at high tide, we decided to tie up to our rafting buddy Layla. 

Once we secured Felicity, we caught up with Bill from Tigger (a San Francisco boat cruised by Bill, his wife Tig and his two kids Sam and Alex) and Pat from the Irish boat Alderbaran, and got the full story of the 'S.S. Minnow'.

The S.S. Minnow is the name we cruisers gave to a 40-foot sport fishing boat that ended up anchored with 20 sailboats in North Minerva Reef. The following story of the S.S. Minnow is largely plagiarized from an update email of Drew's on Layla.

"S.S. Minnow" thankfully anchored in North Minerva Reef  

A very scary, heartwarming, eye-opening, and somewhat stupid story of the "S.S. Minnow"

 -Drew Lytle, s/v Layla

"On Monday night, November 5, Bill on Tigger, who was in our group of boats that left Tongatapu for NZ a couple of days ago, sent out a "Pan Pan" (emergency) call on the VHF. Tigger was approached by a small sport fishing boat which then began circling them. The boat had no name and was not answering Bill’s calls on the radio. Keep in mind that this is 200-miles from the nearest land, in the middle of the night, and in 4 - 6 foot seas. Bill is aboard a 35-foot sailboat with his wife, Tig, and two small children. After the unanswered radio calls, Bill and Tig had their flare pistol pointed at the boat with their searchlight on the flare pistol, and were holding off the sport fishing boat. Layla was about 20-miles ahead of Tigger, and a couple of other cruisers (Stella and Maritime Express) were about 10-miles behind them. Unsure of the intentions of the powerboat and hoping for safety in numbers, Tigger made the decision to turn around and head towards Stella and Maritime Express while they closed the gap. In a couple of hours with all three cruising boats standing off the sport fishing boat, it was determined that the boat was lost and low on fuel! They were headed to Tonga from Fiji, and were about 200 miles off course to the south. The decision was made to lead them to Minerva Reef (about 75 miles further from their destination) because it was known that there were other cruisers who could help, and it was a safe anchorage where they could await help from the Tongan Navy.

Fast forward to the next day, we and 20 other cruising boats are all in Minerva anchored, plus the sportfisher. It turns out there were 3 people on board (the owner – a Tongan named Ken, and his two Fijian crew); the boat was recently purchased in Fiji and they were trying to bring it back to Tonga – a three day trip. It was an older wooden boat about 40-feet long that wasn’t what we would consider ocean ready: no radio, no compass except for one of those cheep dash mount auto compasses, a GPS with dead batteries, no one on board knew how to navigate, and the engine had a leaking fuel injection line. They had about 30 gallons of water in an old kerosene container, which, of course, tasted like kerosene. The bilge pump was broken.... And the list goes on. It was amazing these guys are still alive. The cruisers in Minerva dubbed the sport fisher the S.S. Minnow.

Now among a bunch of overly cautious and experienced cruisers, the first reaction could easily be outrage, starting with Bill and Tig, who feared for the lives of themselves and their kids when first approached in the middle of the night... but it wasn't outrage, it was help. It was unbelievable how much help and stuff 20 cruising boats can come up with in the middle of the ocean.

Bill put out a call on the VHF listing “the Minnow’s” needs, and everything started happening. Layla has a satellite phone, so Bill brought the owner, Ken, over to Layla and he called his wife in New Zealand to tell her he was OK. Then his ace in the hole was the fact that he appears to be good friends with the Prime Minister of Tonga, so he called him at home!

The rest of the help started pouring in. Xen on Inatora had a spare VHF Radio, which he installed on the Minnow. Felicity supplied the spare antennae. Someone else removed and put a new compression fitting on the fuel injection pipe to fix that problem. A hand operated bilge pump was donated. Batteries for the GPS, charts from Minerva to Tongatapu, and a short course in navigation was delivered. Two week’s worth of food, flares and safety gear, several full collapsible 5-gallon water jugs and instructions how to catch rain water, and some diesel fuel all were loaded on board.

A special radio net was set up with the Port Authority in Nuku'alofa to arrange for the Tongan Navy patrol boat to come out within the next 10-days to escort them back to Tonga. Mind you, all of this happened in less than 24 hours, during the regular squalls with driving rain, 30 knots of wind, thunder, and lightening that was occurring in North Minerva.

So now our "S.S. Minnow" is securely anchored, fed, and comfortable here in Minerva, and with most of the boats leaving here tomorrow, they may be lonely until the navy shows up, but they'll be safe."

We spent an enjoyable evening with Drew and Vernita on Layla, we did however, have to perform a quick disengage when the winds and seas climbed above our joint comfort level. As it was dark, we just cast off our lines from Layla, and dropped anchor right behind them.

The next day was spent collecting food and water to be donated to the Minnow, and preparing for Ken's early birthday party. The wind was averaging over 20 knots and it was pouring rain, but we decided to keep our plans for Ken's party. Felicity became the oversized dinghy; we pulled up anchor, motored over to Rainsong to perform a drive-by pick-up of Jason and Tam and then rafted again to Layla. 

Photo by Vernita Lytle

Felicity as the 31 dink, ferrying Tam and Jason back to Rainsong

We had a nice early birthday party for Ken. Not having access to many stores, he got a cake, some Gummi Bears, Otter Pops, an Anchor Steam beer and some bacon. Not the usual presents, but having a birthday party in the middle of the ocean is a little unusual.

Photo by Vernita Lytle

Ken's Minerva Birthday celebration

At the end of the party, we cast off from Layla, returned Jason and Tam and again dropped anchor. We had good timing, as it was getting dark and the wind had climbed to 30-knots by the time we had the hook down.

That evening we got the weather update from McDavitt, which said it was time to head for New Zealand. A few boats pulled anchor and left that evening. We decided to get another good night of rest, and leave first thing in the morning. 

We motored out of North Minerva at about 0800 on November 8. The blustery weather of the last few days was gone, and we had sunny skies, but almost no wind. 

A few of the boats, including Rainsong, decided they wanted a little more wind to start the passage, and pulled into South Minerva Reef, which is 60 miles further south. They waited three more days, and enjoyed lobster feasts and relaxing with the other boats there, before continuing their passage to New Zealand.

We had plenty of fuel, so we motored for most of the first day, but by the second day the winds filled in enough to allow us to sail and make an average of 5 knots. We began checking in on Russell Radio. Russell Radio is run by an elderly gentleman named Des in Opua. He has raced and cruised, but now lives in a house in Opua and runs a cruiser's net. His net is used by practically all the boats in transit to and from New Zealand. During November, Des is kept extremely busy as he has check-ins four times a day and tracks and gives weather advise to about 100-boats at any one time.

Flat seas, nice winds and beautiful sunsets were the norm for the first 5 days of our trip to New Zealand

During the 5-days of our passage, we had some of the nicest sailing we've ever had. The seas were nearly flat, we had sunny skies, and 10-15 knots of winds. We had a 20-hour spinnaker run, and sleeping and cooking below felt like we were in a marina. 

Photo by Vernita Lytle

An unexpected spinnaker run on the way to New Zealand

As we were the smallest boat in the current group heading for New Zealand, the 8 or so other boats that had left Minerva with us all pulled ahead of us. The course we agreed upon to New Zealand was to get some westing in by heading for 175 degrees east and 30 degrees south before heading due south to New Zealand. This is so when one of the lows with its southwest winds you're bound to encounter on this passage hits, you can still make a southerly course without having the wind dead on your nose which would require tacking back and forth to make headway.

As the boats 40 and 50 miles ahead of us were reaching 30 degrees south, Des told everyone to hold up, as a low that was crossing New Zealand was moving slower than expected. If the boats stayed north of 30 south for a day or so, they shouldn't encounter the 40-50 winds forecasted to accompany the low. All of the boats that had pulled ahead of us now had to stop, which wasn't hard as they were encountering very light winds; some floated, others sailed west or even back northwest to wait for the low to pass. 

As we are not very fast and were still 20-50 miles behind most of these boats, we kept plodding along at 5 knots in our nice winds. The early morning weather faxes showed the low on the move again, as we had reached the very light winds near 30 south, we fired up the engine and started pressing south Opua. Layla who was still about 30 miles ahead of us also put the pedal to the metal and kept moving. Many of the other boats waited until Des's morning net, when he confirmed what we had seen on the weather fax and said it was OK to start heading south again. 

A number of the boats who either didn't have enough fuel or didn't want to motor, waited another 12-hours before the winds filled in and they started to make some headway toward Opua.

As we were fairly close to Layla, we maintained an SSB check-in with them every three hours on our watch changes. Layla was always 20 - 60 miles ahead of us, so we had a good heads-up on the weather immediately ahead of us. Between our contact with Des, the weather faxes we were pulling down on Felicity, and our check-ins with Layla, we fortunately didn't have any weather surprises. This also allowed us to prepare for the stronger winds that we got at the end of the passage, giving us time to prepare some food for the rougher weather and fill our fuel tank from the jerry jugs while the wind and seas were calm. On our sixth day out of North Minerva, the winds filled in, clocked around to the west, and started to build. We were soon making over 6 knots on a beam reach on our rhumb line to Opua. 

As the wind started to fill in the seas soon started to build

We had two fronts to punch through and a little bit of the remaining low before we would pull into New Zealand. After sailing through the first front with it's stronger westerlies and squalls, we punched through it and had lovely sunshine. Unfortunately, with the sunshine came building southwesterly winds and seas and we began our two days of beating. Soon we had 25-30 knot winds, gusts to 35, on the nose. The seas were 9-12 feet and we were giving Felicity and her rig a bit of a test. We were soon missing the first 5-days of the passage as any sleeping or movement below was nearly impossible as Felicity would launch off the waves and pound into the seas. We continued with a double-reefed main and staysail and continued to make 5-5.5 knots toward to Opua. The two days of beating and all the water that washes over the boat in this sort of weather, soon showed us some new leaks in various lockers and we were again soaked by our leaking companionway hatch.

The photo of the side deck captures how much water rushed over the boat while beating into 9-12 foot seas

On our eighth day out of Minerva, the low had passed and the winds and seas dropped. The high moving in behind the low continued to bring us south southwest winds, but with the seas and wind down we were able to motor sail the last day. Layla had arrived in Opua mid-morning on Friday, November 16. We pulled into Opua at 0300, Saturday November 17 for just shy of a 9-day passage from North Minerva and 11 1/2 days from Nuku'alofa. We were the second boat (behind Layla) to arrive of the group that left North Minerva with us. We were lucky with our weather decisions, and felt a bit like the tortoise who beat the hares who had to hurry up and wait to let the low pass.

Ken tired but happy at 0300 in the morning to have Felicity tied to the quarantine dock in Opua, New Zealand

Overall the passage was mostly pleasant. The 2 days of beating were wet and uncomfortable, and the pounding and shuddering caused me a little stress. However, Felicity handled it beautifully, and we never felt in danger. More than once I was thankful that Bob Perry designed her well, Ta Shing built her well, Bob Doyle oversized her new rigging, and Frank Schattauer had built her a strong set of sails.

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