Thursday, November 09, 2017

Passage to New Zealand

[Kyle]The wind was really blowing when we awoke on our planned departure day from Minerva . The seas on the other side of the reef were the highest we had seen since arriving a week earlier. It was high tide then and the remnants of the waves that survived the trip over the reef were imparting a bit of bounce to our morning. The conditions were not ones that made us eager to get out there and go sailing. A look through the morning's downloaded forecasts made it clear, though, that we had a very narrow weather window for the passage. Our choice was either to leave that day or wait around at least another week for the next system that hadn't yet even made its way into the far end of the forecasts.

I called Michael on the radio with my analysis. He was only able to get the large area synoptic maps on his boat via weatherfax and was eager to get more detail from us. His boat was a bit slower, so he would really need to get moving if he was going. He seemed lees concerned than I was and told me he was going to do some baking and read a book before deciding how he felt about going out there.

We probably needed to get out there as quickly as we could, but knowing we were going to be in for a rough time, we lingered over a big meal, figuring we wouldn't really be in the mood for it later, and took our time with the last of our offshore preparations. As we did, the tide fell. The reef became a much more effective breakwater and the motion slowly stopped.

When we finally had no more excuses for hanging around, we pulled up the anchor out of the sand, radioed goodbye to Michael and shot downwind toward the pass. Outside, we turned toward a point that would put us clear of South Minerva before making a fifteen degree turn for North Cape in New Zealand

We had lots of wind and were moving nice and fast with two reefs in each sail. The seas started off nice and flat while we were still in the lee of the reef, but gradually increased as we angled further away. By the time we were passing South Minerva, which we never got close enough to see, the seas were a big, sloppy mess. It would have been nice to get some relief in the lee of the reef, but it was high tide again. What we got instead were big waves that had wrapped around either side of South Minerva and were colliding in a criss-crossing pattern, making a jumble of steep, pyramidal seas that made for a very uncomfortable and unpredictable motion. Maryanne came back off her first off watch reporting that she hadn't been able to get any sleep at all. I fared a little better as the seas began to stabilize on the other side, but the motion was still wild enough that I could only manage a few fifteen minute snatches before it was my turn again. We were at least making excellent progress. Within the first day and a half, we managed one twenty-four hour run of 199.9 miles. Oooh, so close! The wind backed and decreased over the next two days. We gradually shook out the reefs in each sail. The motion went from a rough upwind gallop to the nice, gentle rocking of a fast downwind sail in following seas. This had the desired effect on our sleep quality and we quickly recovered the sleep lost on our first day. The skies cleared and the wind continued to back until the jib was being blanketed by our big main. We furled them both and a few minutes later were enjoying a nice fast sail, being pulled behind our trusty spinnaker across sparkling, blue seas lit by bright sunshine. Aah, that's what we like! Being at sea went from a necessary ordeal to a pleasant way to pass the day.

The weather was mixed and got colder as we headed south

We tried to enjoy it while we could, for we knew it was not to last. Each updated forecast we got was predicting headwinds and rain, followed by really strong tailwinds and more rain. The tailwinds were expected to last just long enough for us to get almost into the lee of New Zealand's North Island before they shifted to equally strong headwinds again. To make the most of that, we would have to sail as fast as we could once the tailwinds started.

We got lucky with the first bout of headwinds. They turned out to be weaker than expected, which even though we couldn't go very fast, allowed us to point higher and not be slowed down further by chop. We were able to still close some of the distance remaining while waiting for the tailwinds. Even so, every new forecast was still making it look like it was going to be a neck and neck race.

As the days progressed, the air and sea temperatures gradually dropped. Every watch, we would add another item to the outfit we wore for the last one until we were ultimately in hats, parkas and long trousers. Tropics, we miss you already.

Our headwind died, slowing Begonia to a crawl. It rained briefly and then our predicted tailwind arrived and built quickly. We carried as much sail as we dared as we raced to close the gap between us and North Island. Eventually the wind built to just under thirty knots. During a watch change, Maryanne and I went forward and clawed down the last of the mainsail, leaving us sailing deep downwind using about half of the jib. The days of peaceful sleep were gone again to be replaced by fitful dreams and waking worries about the building noise outside.

We were making excellent time, though. This allowed us to gradually cut the corner at North Cape at the tip of North Island and slowly bend a course southeastward toward our intended landfall at Whangarei.

The strongest wind arrived just ahead of the approaching front. With it came rain that increased from a drizzle to a heavy downpour. The howling of the wind through the rigging was completely drowned out by the hiss of the rain pelting the cabin top and the outside of the cockpit enclosure. The visibility decreased to only 100 meters or so. I felt a little guilty at that point handing Begonia over to Maryanne's care while I retreated to a nice, pre-warmed bed for a nap.

When I awoke, the wind had changed and Maryanne was tacking down the coast under cloudy skies with little patches of blue opening up. As I came bleary-eyed into the cockpit, she pointed out the hills of Cape Brett slowly receding astern. What! Land Ho? When were you going to tell me? That's New Zealand!

New Zealand is beautiful! Craggy mountains alternated with rolling hills giving it a look that is half Hawaii/half England, or possibly some of the more rugged parts of Scotland, only warmer. I liked it immediately.

Hand Ho!... Marina by midnight and officially cleared in the following morining

The headwinds weren't too strong, just a little cooler than we're used to, and we had pleasant sailing as we tacked down the pretty coast, feeling fortunate to have a sailboat in such a nice place for a sail. Unfortunately, having to tack back and forth dashed our hopes of arriving in Whangarei by nightfall. We each had to pull ourselves from the view for a long enough nap to be able to make it in without nodding off.

We made one last tack after rounding Bream Head and then turned downwind for the last few miles to Marsden Cove Marina, just inside the entrance to Whangarei harbor. We picked our way along the blinking lights of the channel markers and tied up at the quarantine dock just before midnight. The marina was so well protected that inside the basin, the water was perfectly flat and there wasn't a breath of wind. After rounding the last corner, I was able to take Begonia out of gear and coast the rest of the way, using a couple of seconds of reverse on one engine to stop her forward motion and ease her in sideways until she came to a rest six inches from the dock. The quarantine dock is behind a locked gate, which eliminated any temptation to stay up even later to go exploring.

After not nearly enough sleep, Mike, the Quarantine Officer arrived and took us through his part of the formalities. He was very nice and helpful and to our relief didn't confiscate nearly as much of our remaining provisions as we feared. Getting to a store no longer had to be the first thing on our list.

Following Mike was Grant, the Customs and Immigration Officer. He was equally friendly and in short order he welcomed us to New Zealand and told us we could lower our quarantine flag and replace it with the New Zealand courtesy flag. Yay, We're officially here!

We radioed the marina and were assigned the slip just ahead, where there was no gate to prevent us from going ashore. Marsden Marina is about a 35km drive from the city center – way too far to walk. We had a little walk around the marina complex and found just enough shops to keep us going without providing enough diversion to distract us from our long list of jobs in preparing for haul-out. We did manage to take a break to have a nice meal out at the cafe before returning to Begonia to tackle 'The List'.

We were honestly so tired after a couple of days with little sleep that we were having a hard time staying focused. We decided to go to bed early and sleep in as long as we needed to before having another go at it. That helped tremendously and we were much more effective the next day. To keep us from going too nuts with it, we were able to use the cafe's cheap pizza night as an excuse to call it quits at a reasonable hour.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

North Minerva Reef

[Kyle]To break up the ten to twelve day passage between Nuku'alofa in Tonga and New Zealand, we stopped for a rest of several days, about a quarter of the way, at a shallow enough spot in the ocean to drop anchor known as the Minerva Reefs.

Minerva consists of two coral reefs separated by about twenty miles lying just south of the Tropic of Capricorn and just east of the Antimeridian (the 180 degree longitude separating east from west). The reefs' name comes from a whaling ship that ran aground on South Minerva in 1829. The Ship's name comes ironically from the Roman goddess of wisdom.

Shipwrecks are still common on Minerva, although slowly becoming less so because of GPS and more accurate charting. Most notably was Tuaikaepau, a 51 foot Tongan vessel carrying a whopping seven crew and ten passengers who wrecked on South Minerva in 1962. Of course this was in the days before GPS, where unfortunate weather can leave any boat with only an approximation of their position. The crew and passengers of Tuaikaepau survived in the hull of a Japanese fishing boat that had wrecked two years earlier. The Japanese boat had a still for making fresh water and they burned pieces of Tuaikaepau's wreck to keep the fire going. After three months, they built a raft without the use of tools, using some of the remaining wood from their wreck .The Captain, his son and a carpenter then set sail for Fiji. They arrived after seven days and capsized in the pass off the island of Kadavu. They swam for shore, but the Captain's son drowned before he could make it. Three others back on the wreck on Minerva also died before the group was finally rescued by a Royal New Zealand Air Force flying boat. {Maryanne: If you wish to know more there is an out-of-print book about this amazing survival story: Minerva Reef by Olaf Ruhen}

We chose to anchor at North Minerva because it offers better protection from the ocean swell and because the pass and lagoon are less tricky to navigate.

Since New Zealand lies outside the tropics in the band of climate dominated by the westerlies, its weather is dominated by the regular passage of alternating frontal systems and high pressure waves. A passage to New Zealand must be timed carefully in order to make best use of the shifting winds and to avoid being caught out by a storm. Since most forecasts rapidly drop in reliability after five days or so, any ocean passage longer than that has no choice but to set out with a good forecast and then adjust the plan as you go. A stop at Minerva offers the strategic advantage of being able to break the Tonga – New Zealand passage into two separate legs. This makes it possible to leave Minerva at just the right time in the frontal cycle and to have a weather forecast in hand that offers predictions all of the way until landfall.

Because of this, almost all sailboats making the passage between southern Tonga and New Zealand make the stop at Minerva to regroup before continuing on. A stop also allows yachts to confer with each other about weather and strategy. It is also a great last chance to swim and clean the boat hull before entering New Zealand waters.

Our trip to Minerva started at first light the day after clearing out. A day earlier would have been ideal, but Customs was closed then, so we had to make use of as much of what remained of the window as we could. The wind angle was such that we were just able to avoid tacking as we made our way through the shipping channel from Nuku'alofa to the sea. Once there, we furled all of the sails, slowing us to a crawl. A little more running around and FOOM! The spinnaker billowed to life and we shot downwind across the open sea toward Minerva.

We had the spinnaker up for a day and a half before the backing wind went too far forward to make use of it anymore. We switched back to normal working sail and let the wind bend our course from southwest to south. We were approaching a frontal boundary and our goal was to get south of North Minerva's latitude before the southeast winds behind the front arrived, then we could make a big right turn and follow them to the atoll.

As the front approached, the wind shift brought with it lowering clouds and eventually pouring rain. Our pleasant downwind sail became significantly less comfortable. For the first time since reaching the southern hemisphere, we were each spending our night off-watches sleeping under a comforter.

The front passed. The pressure began to rise, but the predicted wind shift was taking its time in coming. By noon on our third day, we were close enough to North Minerva to motor the last few miles. That would allow us to get in just before dark and save us another night at sea. Once we had an engine running at cruising rpm, we realized we were fighting a big current that was eating up more than half of our speed. Our new ETA was hovering around midnight.

The wind picked up a little and with the help of the sails, we were able to speed up enough to get us there in daylight. A little further on, the current we had been fighting swung around and we were back to a comfortably mid afternoon arrival. Whew!

An uneventful passage to Minerva - you can 'just about' see the surf of the reef in the second picture

We spotted the breakers outside the reef about five miles out. We could also see a boat anchored on the inside. It took us a while to sail around to the pass on the far side and then make our way back to the windward side of the lagoon. We dropped anchor in four meters on the sand shelf about a half mile from the other vessel. We called them on the radio to introduce ourselves. They were an Australian couple who were looking at leaving for New Zealand in a day or two before the current weather window closed. We had considered doing the same ourselves, but we wanted to stay long enough to have at least a couple of decadent sleep-ins and do some exploring before making what is historically a pretty cold, stormy passage to New Zealand.

After downloading the latest forecast the next morning, we saw that the current weather window was predicted to close within the week. If we left that afternoon and sailed pretty fast, we could just make it before the wind shifted against us. We were ready to go, but neither of us had the motivation. We decided to take our chances and stay in Minerva until the next weather window opened, hopefully less than a week later.

That left us free to jump in the water and have a look at the place. We swam from Begonia to the inside edge of the reef and then followed the wall around for half a mile or so. There were a few things that were different between Minerva and Beveridge. Minerva seemed to have fewer sharks, a larger variety of fish species and many more urchins. The colorful clams are getting bigger than further east. The reef itself is also a little bit higher. It dries out almost completely at low tide, making the lagoon look like it is ringed with a big hundred meter wide sidewalk.

A look about the south side of the reef
there were huge numbers of spiny urchins tucked under the shelf, and plenty of fish and sharks to entertain us

As we swam, three other boats arrived and anchored on the other side near the pass. Two had been anchored with us at Big Mama and left the day after we did. We called those two up and found out they were only planning to stop long enough to swim in the pass before leaving in the current window. The Australians pulled up anchor. We thought they were going to leave, but then they anchored about the same distance on the other side of us. They said they were going to wait one more day, but the reef was a bit lower where they had been, making it pretty rolly there. They wanted a good night's sleep before leaving.

Kyle FINALLY! gives up early on the hair experiment and shaves it all off

The next morning, we moved too, not because of the swell inside but outside the lagoon. Upon recommendation of the two boats that had anchored near the pass, we decided to do some snorkeling on the outside of the atoll. Low tide was in the morning, so we found a spot on that side to anchor for the night. We were exposed to waves that had rolled all of the way across the atoll to get to us, so we had a pretty bumpy night, but the breakers on the other side of the coral had gone from eight to two feet.

As we motored over to the north of the atoll, two of the other boats plus the Australians left. We anchored near the third boat, but never could reach them on the radio. We woke at first light and by the time we surfaced and had a look outside, they were already outside the pass with their sails up. It was just us left on Minerva.

We swam quickly to the reef, climbed on top of the wall and splashed our way in ankle-deep water to the outside. We found a spot out of the swells at a crevice leading toward the sea, hopped in and followed it out. On the outside, the wall of coral dove away into empty blue and then black. We found several large schools of fish forming streams that undulated over the steep topography of the reef. Several species of reef shark patrolled in the depths just at the limit of the visibility. When they would spot us, they had the unnerving habit of bolting right at us to see what we were. One little guy was getting a little too curious and was following Maryanne closely. It was looking like she was going to have to punch him in the nose to discourage him, but he left when she wound up.

We found a great spot where the coral plunged vertically into the dark. Several species of fishes were congregating there, so we spent a while paddling against the current just enough to stay still, watching all of the mini-dramas of their lives once they became comfortable enough to ignore us.

A great snorkel on the outside wall of the reef

Because we were on the deep water side of the reef in the Pacific, rather than the atoll, we were making a point of keeping closer together than usual. We were paying careful attention to both the current and the wave height for fear that our route back would get cut off and we would be forced to find a new route further on. After spending a few minutes at the wall, I noticed Maryanne kept disappearing. When I popped my head up to look for her, all I would usually see was a big wave about to hit me in the face. Every now and then, our crests would line up and I would see her head fifteen feet away. The underwater scene was the opposite. I'd lose her in the crests until I spotted her fins above me sticking below the water's surface. Fortunately, it was easy for me to dive down far enough to see her silhouetted against the sky. We decided it was time to head back.

We had no problem following the landmarks of the reef back to our entry point. We were lucky to spot two sea turtles swimming lazy circles along the way. The tide had begun to rise and conditions were a little rougher, but we got back on top of the reef with no problem for the walk to the inside. While conditions inside were way better than where we had been, our anchorage was starting to get a little rough, so we decided to return to our original spot in the lee of the reef on the east side.

Before we did, though, we made a detour to the pass where we each did a drift snorkel in turn while the other loitered nearby in the boat. The coral wasn't as interesting, but there was a nice concentration of larger fish. When I went in, I was immediately surrounded by big schools of grouper and tuna. Oh, and sharks – lots of sharks. They were milling around way down at about 20 meters. I tried a couple of times to dive down close enough to get a better view of them, but as soon as I submerged, they all scattered like flies. Scaredey-fish.

After drifting for a bit, the scenery started to drop off so I headed back toward where Maryanne was hovering with Begonia in the deep water at the middle of the pass. It started to rain pretty hard then, which didn't bother me as I was already wet, but Maryanne said it was getting harder and harder for her to see me. Luckily Begonia is way bigger than my head, so I was able to find her.

The walls of the pass were less spectacular than the walls outside of the reef, but WOW, there were plenty of sharks in the middle of the pass.

Just before I arrived at the boat, I did a few last pirouettes to take in the view before climbing out. Behind me were about twenty sharks all following me. As soon as I was facing them, they all did this hilarious routine where they would scatter in all directions like they just happened to be there by coincidence and totally not following me at all in any way. I would swim some more, turn to find twenty faces full of teeth and they would do it again. It was like one of those mobster movies where the tail is completely terrible at tailing someone inconspicuously. I managed to get back aboard without getting whacked and Maryanne took us back to our old spot.

We were all alone at North Minerva for another day and a half, all of which was gray and rainy. Being encouraged to stay indoors by the weather gave us the chance to get everything aboard better organized. New Zealand Customs will definitely be coming aboard when we clear in and confiscating anything from a long list of things they don't like. We'll eat as much as we can of that before we get there and have anything questionable where it will be easy for them to inspect. Maryanne was getting experimental with the cooking to try and use up forbidden food stocks.

Our solitude was broken by the arrival of a very nice British single-hander named Michael. We had a lovely chat on the radio but he had a few things to fix and was understandably keen to get in a good long sleep. I imagine that will be in reverse order. We left him to it and went back to resume our scrubbing.

A surprise visitor (black bellied plover) and some beautiful sunsets

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Pangiamotu & Nuku'alofa

[Kyle]After the isolation of Malinoa, we headed to the big city. Well, sort of. The main wharf where boats tie up at Nuku'alofa, Tonga's biggest "city", is said to have a pretty uncontrollable rat problem. We opted instead to anchor at Big Mama Yacht Club on Pangiamotu Island. It's just across the water and they have a ferry that goes back and forth to the city several times a day.

A relaxing weekend on the Motu at Big Mamas Yacht Club with a handful of other cruisers

We went ashore at the motu and found Big Mamas restaurant/bar with a great view, but no yacht club office per se. It took asking a few different people, none of whom seemed to be in charge, before we were able to piece together what opportunities were available and come up with a plan. Laundry wasn't available as they send it out and get it back the next day, but being the weekend we wouldn't get it back until Tuesday and we'd hoped to be departed from Tonga by then... Oh well...

We could take our propane tanks and diesel jugs with us on the ferry and they would fill them for us while we ran errands in town. We needed to pick up a few things, but our main task is clearing out of Tonga.

The kitchen was closed, but the next day, we were able to go ashore for lunch and have our first meal out in a couple of weeks. I wouldn't say my fish burger was as good as Maryanne would make, but at least I wouldn't have to do the dishes after.

We pottered about the boat and the Motu over the weekend and were all set to go across on the mini-ferry on Monday to complete our clearance paperwork to exit and to get our propane topped up (which should give us enough for our time in NZ and to reach Chile). It was suddenly clear that for today only, there would be no propane fills - Doh! no propane for us then. (In hindsight we should have just taken the cylinder into town ourselves, but we had no idea how straightforward getting a fill would have been - plus we didn't want to be walking around town with our propane cylinder all day).

[Maryanne]In Nuku'alofa we needed to complete our exit formalities and also to get to the FedEx office to return our broken kindle e-reader. Clearing out was straightforward, once we knew where to go - there were four boat crews on the taxi-ferry over and three boats among us needed to visit customs and immigration. After trying the empty waterfront office and asking around, eventually we all piled into a cab that took us to the right place, a little waiting, and a lot of paperwork later we were officially ready to leave the country.

Kyle was keen to rush about to get back for the 1pm ferry and prep the boat for departure. I'd have liked to dawdle and really explore Nuku'Alofa a but, but obliged by keeping up the pace. Tonga is one of the countries that have a King as head of state, so naturally there is a palace. You can't visit inside but you can peer through the fence over the great lawns and look. The King also goes to church regularly - so most tourists get their first sighting of the King at the Cathedral in town. From the ferry stop - there is a nice waterfront walkway into town (although it is a bit of a hike, plenty of people stopped to ask if we wanted a ride, but we were happy to walk it and soak up the experience). Once in town though the highlight again was the market - plenty of fresh veggies to prepare us for our passage to Minerva and New Zealand, and we squeezed in time for a nice lunch at the well known hangout of "Friends cafe". We made that 1pm ferry, and back at the boat completed the last few chores to have us ready to depart Tonga.

A quick tour of the capital Nuku'Alofa
Cathedral, Seafront views, Palace and typical buildings found in the big city

Saturday, October 21, 2017


[Kyle]The sail to the Tongatapu group from Kelefesia was right at the edge of the distance that could be done in daylight. Unfortunately, we had almost direct headwinds to deal with. That meant we would have to tack back and forth, which would almost double the number of miles we would have to actually sail to cover the distance. Our plan was to sail across the shallow water of the Ha'apai shelf in daylight and then spend the darkness in the deep ocean before sailing onto the Tongatapu plateau in the morning.

It kind of worked out that way. Our first tack took us straight to the narrowest part of the submarine trench between the groups, which was only two and a half miles wide. When we got to the other side, we turned through the wind onto the other tack and followed the trench out into the deep sea to the east. Just before midnight, Maryanne tacked us back, putting us on a perfect line for Malinoa Island on the north side of the group.

{Maryanne}It would have been a perfect fishing passage, but our recent catch had lasted us 3 days of meals, and we were ready for a change, so we didn't bother... Next time.

I spent the wee hours of my watch slowly reducing sail, which put us right at the edge of the Tongatapu shelf at dawn. The weather worsened, which made it really hard to make out underwater features. We had a nervous couple of hours picking our way around the bommies looking for a big enough patch of sand to lay our anchor. We eventually ended up with a less than ideal spot that was exposed to wind and sea and too far from the island itself for convenience. We spent the next day glad for the rest but also wishing we had more to do. That left us with pretty much no other option except stay on the boat compiling lists of things we need to do on our next haulout and organizing our next few legs, all with a maddeningly useless signal. I'd rather have been swimming.

The wild point of Malinoa (we were not anchored nearby)
and another beautiful sunset

Thursday, October 19, 2017


[Kyle]We left Lalona early for an all-morning sail to the very Greek sounding island of Kelefesia. This place is pretty much right on the beaten path for most of the boats going through the Ha'apai, so we were expecting to find our first company after nearly a week of solitude. I was pretty surprised to round the island and find the anchorage empty.

It turned out to be a good thing. The entrance to the anchorage at Kelefesia is narrow and tricky. The sand bottom at ten meters is broken everywhere by coral heads that thrust vertically until they just graze the surface. We picked our way in very slowly and managed to find a spot (THE spot) of uninterrupted sand just big enough for our anchor and chain. There was no room for any other boats. When we set the anchor, we backed down good and hard for there was a reef breaking the surface right behind us and we didn't want to take the chance of even moving an inch.

Kelefesia is beautiful. In addition to being the usual palm-studded beach, the island actually had a few cliffs thrown in for effect, which made it seem twice as nice. The surrounding coral made for a nice effect on the color of the water and completely flattened the roiling sea. I was really not sure the difficult anchorage was worth it, but then we jumped in to have a look at the reefs.

Kelefesia Island

Alright, Kelefesia gets our vote for prettiest place in Tonga. We love it! We stayed just over twenty-four hours and spent as much of the time as we could either in the water or hiking all over the island. If we ever go all Robinson Crusoe, this would be my top pick.

Kelefesia beneath the waves
The last pic is of a Nuidibranch - a Spanish Dancer!

Except that someone beat us to it. We followed a narrow path through the trees on the beach and discovered somebody's homestead. They seemed to be gone for the day, but we kept flushing out their pigs as we walked the paths from one end of the island to the next.

We really hated leaving Kelefesia, but the wind was forecast to go a bad direction for the anchorage and then start blowing hard, so we had to leave the next day for the overnight sail to Tongatapu.