Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Sailing from Tonga to New Zealand via Minerva reef



On November 4th 2013, I left Tonga on board a 42-foot PATANJALI to New Zealand. Although I had promised myself to stay away from Americans and American boats, I didn’t keep my promise. Regretted it so much later!
The crossing from Tonga to New Zealand is a tricky one; infamous for unreliable weather and boisterous sea conditions. The distance is over 1200 nautical miles from Neiafu to Port Opua in NZ or a bit more if you stop at Minerva reef. Leaving Tonga we weren’t sure whether or not we would stop at Minerva but getting close to it we chose to go there and wait out bad winds.
Leaving Neiafu
First one of that kind I see
It´s pretty cool watch it sail
We also spent some time on radio every day listening to the Southern Cross Cruisers Net, starting usually at 8am where most of the vessels heading to New Zealand were reporting. In fact, it took more than an hour every day for all of the vessels checking in to report their locations and weather conditions, there were more than 30 vessels underway. And that number was growing every day since new boats were joining. A few of them had problems onboard like the water maker broke down so the crew had to undergo significant water rationing. Another one, a couple, sailing with three kids, lost their autopilot within the first 250 miles and had to continue hand steering the remaining 800 miles to New Zealand. But the worst ever report came from a vessel that was dismasted. Unable to carry on sailing without a mast, the captain sent a distress signal (which was heard by everyone underway) and New Zealand Coast Guard was sent to rescue them. I actually saw it in Opua, NZ at the quarantine deck when we arrived, it was weird to see such a big catamaran without a mast. But at least they made it safe and sound to NZ.
Last photos of the spinnaker before it completely ripped.

Last photo of Tonga
We got this lovely mahi-mahi on the way to Minerva reef
The passage from Tonga to New Zealand takes about eight to nine days. There is, however, one place to stop on the way. That’s Minerva Reef, located about 200 miles southwest of Tongatapu. Minerva is actually two separate sunken islands. North Minerva Reef is where we and everybody else stopped. Just 14 miles southwest, right on the rhumb line to New Zealand, is South Minerva Reef. Minerva provides a respite from the seas. There’s no shelter from wind though. But, inside the lagoon its calm assuming the seas are moderate outside. Here you can stop take a rest and watch the weather window you have into New Zealand. The lows coming across the Tasman Sea are notorious and, if you’re lucky, you can time your approach to avoid them.
It is not very clear whom the atolls belong to...Both Fiji and Tonga lay claims to the reefs.

We stayed 4 nights at Minerva reef. By the time we left there were 16 boats inside the lagoon. Floating in the middle of it is a surreal experience - the reef isn't even visible at high tide, and yet it tames the big South Pacific swells to waves of less than a foot. 
So we are somewhere in the Pacific ocean, at least 250 miles away from the closest land, anchored inside an atoll that is completely submerged at high tide. When you look out all you see is a few boats perfectly motionless and blue infinity. Pretty unreal!
I wonder how many people in total have been here before...considering that GPS made it possible to stop here only for the last few years. 
Since we had quite a lot of fish fillets in the fridge, we shared them with other boats at dinners and barbecues and the time was passing by not as slow I was imagining. 
Minerva reef - more and more boats are arriving every day
I forgot the name of their boat (first boat from Bermuda i meet) but they were fun, came for a another mahi-mahi barbecue
Minerva reef at low tide
Hundreds of miles away from any land....and 16 boats waiting for the good winds
Leaving Minerva reef behind. We are the first one to leave
Once we leave Minerva reef, the weather and winds are nice for a few days and we manage to make pretty good progress, 7 knots on average. But then it changes and it is quite rough at times: four meter seas, and rain squalls with up to 35 knot gusts...Cooking is a mission, can´t sleep. 
And then it dies. Almost nothing for the last 3 days. We listen to the Southern Cross again and everyone else is motoring. Ironically, we suffered from calms more than gales. The sea looks like oil, totally peaceful and calm. We are motoring again. Sun and moon are changing shifts, shooting stars are insane again... but I can´t wait to get to Kiwiland.

I need to have a real shower (it`s too cold to have an outdoor shower), I want to have a proper night sleep (sick of those 5-6 hours shifts every night), I wanna see some well known faces!
No wind. No boats. Nothing. Water is like oil...

At least the hydro-vane is working
Last pineapple left

Patangali´s cockpit. It is getting cold at night...first time wearing sock in months...or a year
And one of those calm afternoons, just sitting in the cockpit and talking, without any specific reason, the wind generator just made some brrrrrrrrrr noise and fell in the ocean. Gone. 2000 $ (if I remember well) gone. Just like that (maybe because Michael installed it himself :)))
Glassy sea again
But we made it! At 4 am, on November 17, we tied to the quarantine dock in Opua, Bay of Islands.
Of course not without the help of other skippers (thank God). There was no way that Michael and I tie to the dock without their help. It wasn´t easy, especially with a captain who has no idea about navigation, but we made it! 
If I ever go sailing again, I will make sure that the captain knows how to sail, use GPS, satellite phone and has more sailing skills than ego. If someone comes across this post and also is in contact with Michael Bowe about crewing on Patanjali, please get in touch with me. I will tell you what my experience was (and the girls crewing before me, unfortunately I found out about them too late) and then it´s up to you. Don´t wanna spoil this post telling the dark side of such an incredible passage but I am ready to give my opinion and full information upon request.
Needless to say that once I set foot on land, I left the boat. My friend from Uni Marinka was doing her PHd in Auckland and expecting me, as well as a few other people I knew from my first visit here.
One of Auckland´s beaches
The most expensive limes I've seen so far
We took a day to go to Piha beachPiha is one of New Zealand’s most famous surf beach. Only 40 kms from the city (Auckland), this black iron-sand beach has a reputation for awesome surf which rolls in over the Tasman Sea. But....yeah but...no public transport going there..And especially if you kiwi friends ignore you, you just need to find another alternative. Which turns out is not that hard - just take a train half way and then hitch hike. Kiwis are pretty friendly and helpful, wasn´t difficult for two girls to get a ride, we got even invited to a house with plenty of dogs and then taken to the beach. 
And the beach is...black sand, burns your feet, piles up in the critch of your shorts, gets everywhere...And it is so so windy..But still beautiful!
Piha beach

Piha beach


Quieter than next door Piha but same hot black sand (flip/flops needed or jandals in kiwi slang)
Marinka doesn´t like to be in photos but I ignored all the protests
Karekare
Karekare beach

Love the pattern of the bus seats...So New Zealand
I spent around 10 days in NZ this time, mostly trying to organize my trip back to Europe.
Auckland
Marinka and I
The beaches in Auckland are not that bad after all
There was a New Year parade in Auckland (in November!!!)



And really random meet-up. Javiera and Oscar, who I met a year and a half earlier in Peru and who kept travelling just like me all this time, just arrived to New Zealand. I was so happy to see other familiar faces, never expected that next time I see them would be in New Zealand (never thought I would go back to NZ so soon)
A year later all three of us are still on the road and which is more strange, in Auckland!
End of the procession with a massive Superman (is that Superman actually?) 
On 26th of November I left. I was supposed to get a flights to Europe since I promised my mum I will be home for Christmas but I couldn´t resist not going to Japan first (it´s almost on the way to Europe..almost). Nobody checked my 3 kilo bag of corals at the airport, so first customs all good. Hopefully it is the same in Japan...

The cheapest flights in Europe