Ocean atoll awash

Few South Pacific voyagers miss a stop at the Kingdom of Tonga. The Vava’u Group attracts the highest number of visiting boats, with deep, protected passageways between a large cluster of picturesque islands, permitting relaxed cruising among lovely, sheltered anchorages. A growing number of boats venture south into the lower-lying, coral-strewn Ha’apai Group, and a steady annual proportion sail onward to the country’s southernmost main island of Tongatapu for a stop at the capital town of Nuku’alofa. There they provision and procure New Zealand visas from the consulate before heading south to escape the November onset of cyclone season. By this time nearly all have heard of North and South Minerva Reefs, two rings of nearly submerged coral lying some 270 nautical miles southwest of Tongatapu, somewhat to the west of the rhumb line to New Zealand.

This position, and the existence of navigable passes into the protected inner lagoons of both atolls, plays on various portions of a seafarer’s brain. No one wants to hear the roar of breakers dead ahead on a dark, stormy night or feel the crunching lurch of your hull piling forcibly onto a solid piece of real estate in mid-ocean. On the other hand, many dream of anchoring alone in tranquil, gin-clear lagoons teeming with sea life for a restful break during a passage, or of riding out a severe storm on the hook, protected from the brunt of the conditions by solid walls of coral. We were no different from anyone else, having made two passages between Tonga and New Zealand without laying eyes on either of the Minervas. By the time our third passage was imminent, we knew a stop was inevitable.

We’d arrived in Tonga’s Vava’u Group again after 18 months in New Zealand, including a four-month return to the U.S. for medical and business issues that could no longer be ignored. During this time our 41-foot aluminum sloop Elan awaited us on an Auckland hardstand. Our first time through Vava’u, nearly two years before, had been late in the winter sailing season. We’d spent only one short week before the looming storm season compelled us to set sail. We knew we hadn’t scratched the surface of what this group of islands had to offer, and our determination to do it justice on the second time around was strong. We’d sailed up the eastern quadrant of a fortuitously stalled high, fanned by southeasterlies coming over the starboard quarter on a direct 10-day shot from Auckland to Neiafu. We cleared customs one hour before my sister, her husband, and her father-in-law arrived at the airport on a long-planned visit from Wyoming. Our spirits soared as we loaded everyone’s gear aboard and made ready to cast off from the fuel dock.

Ambitious plans to visit Fiji and Vanuatu fell by the wayside as two other couples came out to visit, we were adopted by several local families, and we accepted an invitation to participate on a local fishing boat in the annual billfish tournament. Before we knew it, we’d been in Vava’u’s calm embrace for nearly the entire South Pacific winter. We’d had countless wonderful days, exploring Swallow’s and Mariner’s caves, photographing a mother humpback whale and her calf swimming laconically beside Elan, and spending time under and above water with some very special people and marine life. Suddenly the October spring window for the voyage back to New Zealand was upon us.

We fished and dived our way south through the Ha’apai and Nomuka Groups, and arrived in Nuku’alofa after an easy overnight sail. There we consolidated our crew with Kiwi friends Ken Kiddie and Hans Swete, who’d earlier committed to the trip south as a way of gaining their first offshore passage. The four of us plotted and dreamed about a stop at the Minervas over cold beers at Nuku’alofa’s waterfront Billfish Bar, and we kept a sharp eye out for an appropriate weather window.

As if on cue, the progression of strong winter highs passing by to the south of us slowed and settled, and on a sparkling sunny afternoon we picked our way around Atata Island, out the channel through the reef, and set a course for North Minerva Reef.

The mystique of the Minervas

Elan’s hull bit into the ocean swell under full genoa and mainsail, close reaching into light south-southeasterly conditions. The trolling lines went out, and the conversation turned quickly to stories about the Minervasboats that had survived the infamous Queen’s Birthday and lesser storms anchored inside the reefs; shipwrecks and disappearances, either documented or suspected, in the vicinity of the reefs; and reports of abundant fish and lobsters, and of an unspoiled environment little-disturbed by humans.

Capt. H. M. Denham, aboard the H.M.S. Herald, surveyed the reefs in 1854 and named them after the whaling ship Minerva, wrecked on South Minerva after setting out from Sydney in 1829. The captain of the Minerva was not aware of a large, poorly defined area called Nicholson’s shoals added to Pacific charts not long before departure, and was therefore quite surprised when the brig drove up hard on the reef at 0200 on September 9. Most of the 23-man crew, and a dog, made it from the wreck to the inner lagoon aboard two whaleboats, but the drunken whaling master and two crew refused to leave the wreck, despite the fact that it was under siege from heavy breaking seas. They survived the night lashed to the bowsprit of the broken hull, and the entire complement set sail the following day aboard three whaleboats loaded with water caskets and what provisions they could salvage from the wreck. One boat began leaking seriously, prompting one of the two remaining boats to sail off to save themselves. The remaining whaleboat eventually took aboard the entire crew of the sinking boat for a total of 15 men and the dog, leaving only six inches or so of freeboard. The desperate castaways, out of fresh water and food, sighted the island of Vatoa, an outlier of Fiji’s Lau Group, on September 15 and reached the outer reef, making their way ashore after splintering the whaleboat on the coral. Eight of the men remained with the friendly locals, and seven repaired the whaleboat and set sail again only to wreck once more on a Tongan island before eventually making their way home to Sydney. The crew of the boat that hastily abandoned the doomed men was never seen again.

Another famous incident occurred on the maiden voyage of the wooden schooner Strathcona, sailing north soon after completion in Auckland in 1914, only to unexpectedly crash up onto South Minerva Reef on the sixth day of the voyage and break apart. The crew of 13 consolidated materials and constructed a raft to live aboard in the lagoon, and then the captain and three crew sailed the schooner’s launch north to the nearest inhabited island, Ono-i-Lau, Fiji. Meanwhile a rescue vessel from New Zealand found the survivors on the raft at South Minerva, as well as the rescuers returning aboard a Fijian cutter to save their crewmates.

Many other wrecks on the two reefs are mysteries, with hulls and remains noted by passing vessels at various times and no signs of survivors. One such wreck was a largely intact Japanese fishing vessel that appeared in 1960 on South Minerva, the crew apparently taken off safely by the crew of another fishing vessel, whom they were able to contact by radio. This wreck was to play a critical role in what remains one of the most incredible maritime survival tales in recent history.

The tragedy of the Tuaikaepau

Tuaikaepau was a 51-foot wooden cutter completed in 1902 at the same Auckland boatyard that later built the Strathcona. On the night of July 7, 1962, she was bound from Nuku’alofa for a refit in New Zealand, booming along close-hauled in boisterous southeasterly conditions. Experienced captain David Fifita commanded the seven-man crew and 10 passengers, mostly amateur boxers looking to make some money in New Zealand. The vessel smashed onto the eastern side of South Minerva Reef at seven knots in the darkness. This started a 14-week odyssey that would see only 12 of the men survive.

The 17 Tongans took refuge in the Japanese fishing boat wreck, constructed an ingenious water-distillation plant, and fed themselves by walking the reef flat to fish and collect seafood. Finally on Saturday, October 7, with three men dead, conditions becoming increasingly desperate, and hopes of rescue long gone, Fifita, his son Sateki, and ship’s carpenter Tevita Uaisele embarked on an epic rescue mission in a small craft crudely fashioned (with no tools) from remains of the two wrecks. David set a course for due north, armed only with a compass, sextant, nautical almanac, and a crude chart engraved on a plank, and no way to measure time accurately. He navigated by sun shots and dead reckoning. By Wednesday they were out of food and water. On Thursday they managed to catch a seabird that landed on the tiller and drank its blood. They bypassed treacherous, reef-encircled Ono-i-Lau and Matuku, and at midnight the following Saturday, in greatly weakened condition, David calculated that it was time to head due west in hopes of reaching much larger Kandavu.

The mountainous profile of the eastern end of Kandavu jutted above the horizon at dawn, confirming David’s emergency navigation skills and filling the severely dehydrated, starving men with hope. They sailed cautiously toward the reef, only to have an oversized breaking swell toss the sturdy wooden craft crashing over the reef, throwing the occupants overboard and capsizing the boat. This left little choice but to attempt a swim against the tide to the tiny outlying island of Nmbia approximately 1.3 nautical miles away. David’s son disappeared two thirds of the way to shore. The two survivors dragged themselves up the beach, quenched their thirst with green coconuts, and hiked to a village to summon help for their crewmates back on South Minerva.

After some confusion, word finally reached the Royal New Zealand Air Force station at Suva, and the commander ordered an immediate night flight Monday to drop supplies to the survivors on South Minerva, followed by a rescue via Sunderland flying boat the following morning. The supply flight likely saved the life of at least one of the weakened castaways, though one man had died the previous evening. Olaf Ruhen’s Minerva Reef (Halstead Press, Sydney, 1963) is a worthwhile, highly detailed account of the entire ordeal, and voyagers can pick up the brief recent account Minerva Reef by survivor Fine Feuiaki in Tongan bookstores (Friendly Islands Bookshop, Tonga, 1992).

Overnight at North Minerva

Thoughts of the imperiled voyagers before us prevailed as light, fluky winds had us motorsailing for parts of the second and third days of the passage. By the third evening the southeasterly breeze stiffened. We made good time under double-reefed genoa and mainsail, and at first light sighted the white line of breakers along the north side of North Minerva that had been painting a radar target during the pre-dawn hours. Soon after, the left outrigger bait disappearedin a splashing strike, and Ken worked a 22-pound bull mahi mahi (Coryphaena hippurus, also called dolphin or dorado) to the gaff. We made our way into the wide, easy pass in the northwest corner of the submerged atoll at 0900 in good light and dropped the anchor 20 feet down to the deep fine sand. Soon the dinghy was in the water and we all piled in for a free-diving expedition to a series of nearby coral heads.

We already had plenty of fish, so we did some sightseeing and looked around for lobsters under ledges and domes of coral. The area teemed with fish, flourishing with the near total absence of hook and line or other fishing effort. We spotted only two lobsters, both far under the coral and inaccessible, before heading out the pass for a dive on the outside reef. Here the visibility was nearly limitless, the coral vibrant and dense. An occasional small gray reef shark wagged lazily by the steep drop-off below us, none bothering to investigate the newcomers.

As we motored back in the pass, taking advantage of the countercurrent along the margin of the now outgoing tide, we noticed Elan’s mast swinging irregularly. Despite being inside the lagoon, the vessel was rolling. The shield of coral rubble on the reef crest was mostly submerged at this nearly high-tide stage, offering less opposition to wind-driven waves piling across the reef flat. The formerly placid lagoon now had a distinctly lumpy surfaceplenty tenable, just not as comfortable.

We dined on fresh-grilled mahi mahi and turned in early, awakening to a thin overcast, slick calm morning. We decided to stow the dinghy, rig up some fishing lines, and make a slow, fuel-saving motorsail the 20-odd miles to South Minerva Reef. Hans bagged a school-sized yellowfin tuna, and we all enjoyed the sight of a small (150 pounds) blue marlin crashing the left outrigger bait, missing, then playfully grabbing a small tuna lure before leaping in a graceful arc to freedom.

Exploring South Minerva

A pack of hungry wahoo attacked our lures just off the northwest corner of South Minerva Reef. Their razor-sharp teeth luckily missed the monofilament leaders of our tuna/billfish lures before taking off, but not before one rocketed vertically, high above the deck with our hookless teaser clamped fleetingly in its jaws. We entered the pass, which was less distinct than North Minerva, but no problem if one follows the well-defined southwestern (right-hand) margin into the lagoon, avoiding the easily sighted coral heads as they crop up from time to time inside the lagoon. We picked our way around the inner rim of the lagoon, anchoring near a large, block-like aggregation of coral on the eastern side. This turned out to be the work of an Australian survey team. The location was not far from the site of the long-gone Japanese wreck used by the Tuaikaepau crew, and some boat remains were strewn in the area. We drank in the desolate seascape, barely punctuated by a jagged rim of reef. The muted hiss of breaking seas was the only sound as we tried to imagine being shipwrecked here for 14 weeks, surviving by foraging and by consuming tightly rationed portions of water, distilled with great daily effort, bearing the sorrow of watching crewmates slowly die, and somehow building a boat capable of a substantial bluewater passagewith no tools.

Firing up the grill and the music system returned us to the present, and soon the aroma of sizzling marinated tuna steaks dominated our thoughts. We suspended the tuna carcass into the water from a rope tied to the port transom cleat and retired below for the mealwe’d done the same thing the night before with the mahi mahi carcass and found the rope cleanly severed in the morning. Just as we finished dinner, a loud splash accompanying a sudden lurch of the boat sent us all topside in time to see several gray reef sharks circling hungrily. We didn’t need the bright arch light to see the dark silhouettes against the light sand bottom in the bright reflected light of the full moon, gracefully gliding in ever-tighter circles, then swimming off, only to wheel around and swim straight back in. We fed them the carcass after taking a few photos.

Two solid days of non-stop reef walking, free-diving, dinghy fishing, and lobster hunting proved South Minerva to be every bit as bountiful and spectacular as we’d dreamed. We caught three different species of spiny lobsters during daylight hours hiding in shallow lagoon coral heads, at least two of which characteristically spend their days at significant depths on the outer reef at most tropical Pacific locations. Normally these are caught only at night by walking the reef flat on certain moon phases. Giant clams (Tridacna), increasingly scarce in most Indo-Pacific locations due to overexploitation, were abundant, as were innumerable other reef denizens of every descriptionbrilliant blue starfish; colorful tropical fish species and moray eels; sea urchins and sea cucumbers; rich and brilliantly hued corals; big fat groupers or coral trout (Variola louti) arrogantly patrolling the pass. This was a chance to enjoy the natural South Pacific in all of its splendor, virtually unaltered by the strains humans exert on the planet.

It was a good thing Ken and Hans were along, with the pressures of land jobs and responsibilities never far from mind. Otherwise our euphoria might have sorely tempted us to delay a prudently timed voyage southward. This trip should be made before tropical lows begin abutting to subtropical highs, spawning the hurricane-force easterlies not uncommon in later November and December in the vicinity of New Zealand’s North Island.

So, at noon on the third day after arriving, we exited the pass in calm, sunny weather, with the weatherfax showing favorable timing for a jaunt south, with the exception of one mild low developing in the Tasman Sea. We paused outside the pass long enough to do some deep-dropping with an electric fishing reel, catching a couple of delicious groupers from as deep as 750 feet. The low gave us light northerlies and was not showing signs of deepening, so we finished securing the deck and set sail for New Zealand at 1700.

Heading south

We’d had two fast, uneventful previous passages between Tonga and New Zealand but were no less mindful of the possibility of experiencing heavy conditions. The moon loomed huge and orange out of the sea off the port quarter on the first night, making the ocean surface glimmer. We caught a cow mahi mahi of about 13 pounds the next afternoon and entered the scattered deluges and shifting wind directions of the still-weak low the following afternoon. The center of the low passed below us before sunset, and we’d never seen more than 22 knots of wind.

Favorable winds from light to not more than 25 knots settled in for the remainder of the passage. We fished two billfish lures during daylight hours and caught and released both a rare shortbill spearfish and a striped marlin on successive days. Two days north of our destination a pod of (mammal) dolphin came alongside, immediately followed by a modest-sized marlin blasting onto the teaser and a big strike on the right outrigger lure, which turned out to be a 70-pound-class yellowfin tuna.

With that we retired the fishing rods and concentrated on making maximum speed over the last 250 nautical miles to Opua, rather than hover in what might be fairly termed the “screw-up zone” for this particular passage. Many crews tend to relax a little early, knowing they’ve nearly made it, only to get a pasting when the bottom drops out of a low as it passes over warm ocean currents just above the North Island.

We sailed into Opua exactly seven days after departing South Minerva Reef on a beautiful and sunny, though distinctly cool, late afternoon and retired to the quiet of the Kawakawa River anchorage after check-in.

Bright smiles lit the aft settee over hot soup and rum as we celebrated our good fortune, and the rarified afterglow of visiting a place as magnificent and remote as the Minerva Reefs.

Scott and Wendy Bannerot, based in New Zealand as they voyage the South Pacific, are the authors of The Cruiser’s Guide to Fishing, recently published by International Marine in Rockport, Maine.

By Ocean Navigator