Thursday, December 03, 2009

Dispatch 50 North Minerva Reef

Nov 6 - Nov 12, 2009
Minerva Reef is a place we have both dreamed about for years. The
description of it always made us curious to see it and, as it is en route to New Zealand, it is frequently a stopping off point for yachts. Before we arrived, 22 yachts had been anchored inside the reef. There are both
North and South Minervas. They are the remains of old atolls which
have all but sunk into the sea leaving a very dangerous navigational obstacle, a nearly circular
reef which doesn’t even show at high tide. At low tide, the reef is visible a couple feet above the level of the ocean. There is one area of small sand beach and a navigational light
placed here by Tonga, the
titular owners of the reefs. When we approached by sea, it appeared to be a hole in the ocean which was calm; the boats anchored there looked for all the world like they were anchored in the middle of the ocean. While we had considered carrying on past the reef as our passage was going well, we decided to stop and have a look.

We had left Nuku’alofa in a very good wind on a very rainy day. The passage here was notable for reasonable winds and seas and gloriously, no seasickness!

Within North Minerva were anchored some boats that were friends of ours including our
friends of 4 years, Bruce and Alene on a boat called Migration. We pulled in, anchored (there is room for probably hundreds of boats here) and were immediately invited for hot showers and dinner aboard Migration. We had made dinner for them upon arrival to Nuku’alofa after their passage and it is such a luxury to be treated so well when one is sleep deprived and exhausted. We accepted. The next day we had a jubilant visit from them to invite us to a party the following day. With a little encouragement, they finally told us the reason for the party—they had become engaged that very morning! Bruce, ever the trickster, had thrown a bottle overboard with a message in it. He got Alene to notice the bottle and they fished it out. The
message said, “WYMM” (will you marry me) and she had said an enthusiastic “yes”! While we walked on the reef that afternoon, we told them that some other friends of ours also anchored here at Minerva were both ship’s captains and had performed a wedding ceremony at Suwarrow, legally marrying another cruising couple. Their eyes lit up but they needed to think about it more.

The reef is fascinating. We were able to walk on it at low tide. It was a few hundred feet wide blocking the ocean swells from reaching inside except for a little bobble at high tide. We snorkeled just inside the reef and found a little microenvironment there. As we swam back to our boats, we splashed quite a bit because we were cold and swimming hard. Alene called out “shark” when she saw the gray shark that had come to investigate the sudden splashing. As we stopped and hung in the water quietly, he swam silently away. Later we snorkeled outside the reef where we found gorgeous and healthy coral in abundance.

Bruce and Alene decided that the opportunity was too great to pass up and they decided to get married in the middle of the ocean. So within a day, the whole random group of boats
assembled there conspired to make a wedding. I made a 2 tiered white wedding cake as Alene

requested and decorated it with a little Ecuadorian couple woven from straw that we had on our boat as well as shells collected in Panama with Bruce and Alene. Everyone brought nibbles to enjoy after the midday wedding, performed on their trimaran, we all witnessed their union in one of the most remote places on earth. It was a stellar day. For the wedding reception, they motored their boat towing about 5
dingys and all the guests to the pass, anchored, and everyone snorkeled outside on the reef. What a day! We were so happy to be there to share that great moment with them.

While we were snorkeling another day, a New Zealand Air Force Orion airplane made several low passes over Minerva Reef. They called to each of the sailboats there to verify their identity. While on our passage to New Zealand we were flown over by a customs plane who also called
to us. While some may feel paranoid from the surveillance, we found the attention comforting—were we to have trouble en route to New Zealand, obviously they were aware of our presence and available to help. Eventually, it came time to leave and head on passage to New Zealand. Everyone takes this passage very seriously and we all watched the weather like hawks. Richard and I had engaged the services of a weather router to help us pick our moment to leave, but it still felt uncertain as nobody can know the weather for sure and several boats left the day before we did. As luck would have it, our delay meant we were just at the outside of the one major frontal system that passed through when we approached New Zealand.

The passage to NZ was very calm. We had been looking for a mild weather window and we found it. If anything, the problem was too little wind. We ended up motoring 113 hours to try to move forward on the calm seas with no wind. We sailed the rest of the time on light wind
except for one day where, although gales had been predicted (35-45 knot winds), and even our weather router wrote a special e-mail to warn us about this, we experienced nothing of the sort, no wind over 26 knots and that from behind, so we counted ourselves mighty lucky to have missed that little storm. Apparently, the weather was fairly extreme in NZ because we received a couple, “hang in there” type e-mails from friends assuming we’d really been blasted. We were not and for that we are eternally grateful. As Richard said, “It’s better to be lucky than good.” Our main frustration on the passage was the slow going, but, we were rewarded in the end with a passage without boat damage and arrival, at last, after 4 ½ years of travel with this as our destination, at the Bay of Islands, NZ. It is an amazing feeling to have achieved this final goal in our travels by boat.

Check-in to New Zealand was friendly, professional and efficient. Rumors had abounded about
the many things that would be scrutinized and removed from the boat, but the officials were polite and rational and, other than all fresh produce and our garbage, nothing was taken away.

So our next chapter includes travel in New Zealand to see more of the country and, possibly, if my license is finally approved (in the final stages at this point), some work here in the country. As always, our plans are fluid and we’ll continue to keep in touch.