Birth of Minerva Yacht Club, North Minerva Reef
31 October 2019
22-31 October 2019
Latitude 23.36 S Longitude 178.57 W South Pacific Ocean
BIRTH OF THE MINERVA REEF YACHT CLUB
Such a unique and fascinating place - a relatively small (3.5 miles across) and shallow coral -lined “aquarium” dropped into the middle of nowhere in a vast miles-deep ocean (the Tongan trench running east of here on the ocean floor reaches depths of greater than 5 miles), Minerva Reef is located in the Southern Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from any significant land mass.
When we first discussed possibly stopping in this isolated, seemingly barren atoll as a safe weather way-point en-route to New Zealand, I could not imagine being stuck here with nothing to do for 2 days, much less for 12 days, as it eventually turned out. To our great surprise, it turned out to be one of the most memorable highlights of our 6+ month voyage. The turquoise palettes, the pristine coral reefs, dramatic snorkeling in crystal clear waters with rich sea life (and sharks), the abundant (and so delicious) daily lobster catches and, yes, even the ever-present sharks added to the mystique. Walking on the rimming coral reefs at low tide was an ‘other-world’ experience which defies description, resembling an outer space moonwalk, a slippery beige porous coral surface with random rugged rock formations, dotted with colorful hard coral and teaming fish life darting in the shallow tidal pools washing over the reef. Barely visible except at very low tide, the completely encircling outer reef stretches several hundred yards in width as it creates a solid barrier between the inner lagoon and the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean outside. And the beautiful silence…no cars, no TV, no traffic sounds, no airplanes, no garish news headlines or raucous political hoo-ha…. just wind and waves…this place seemed to cast a spell on all of us.
And yet, perhaps the most inspiring element of this unique environment was the sense of community and connection which developed between the fellow sailors also sequestered within the lagoon, awaiting a safe weather window for passage to New Zealand. At one point we counted 30 sailing yachts safely anchored there, all closely listening to daily weather reports from New Zealand Gulf Harbor Radio on SSB radio, then debating the relative merits of GO-NO GO on any given departure date, hoping to avoid the phenomenon of “analysis paralysis.” We cruisers set up our own VHF & SSB radio networks for daily communication at Minerva as well as for those arriving and those departing early. We continued the SSB net during passage to keep all connected daily as well as for safety.
In the interim we passed the time “dinghying” between the other boats, snorkeling just outside the reef to see gorgeous coral bommies and numerous reef sharks and territorial grey sharks (but thankfully never meeting the fabled tiger shark known to frequent the entrance pass to the lagoon…OMG!) My plan to give Wheytogo a little bottom cleaning was quickly squelched after others described circling sharks during their own cleaning attempts. Daily lobster diving became the norm, snorkeling or diving just outside the reef wall, reaching into to crevices and pulling out lobsters! Ian and I did not actually do this, but we were the lucky recipients of several unbelievably tasty lobsters given to us by thoughtful fellow sailors (think succulent lobster in drawn butter, or spicy Szechuan sauce…indescribable!)
One of the most fun experiences occurred when we invited our fellow cruisers to join us on Wheytogo for a potluck dinner…a meet and greet to pass the time in the lagoon. Little did we know that 20 or more dinghies would be parked behind our stern that evening (requiring valet Parking) and that 42 fellow sailors, anxious for social contact and a PARTY, would crowd on our tightly packed decks for a night of new friendships, commiseration, cooperation and sharing at this most improbable gathering. Men and women, young and old, even a few teens, gathered together in VERY CLOSE proximity to share incredible food and drink (at least 3 separate dishes of Minerva Reef lobster appeared, along with homemade pizza, lasagna, Mexican chicken, homemade tortillas, focaccia and honey bread to name just a few). Who would believe that that much abundance and variety of food could be created in this remote setting …leave it to the resourcefulness of sailors!
It was a multi-cultural event, blending people from Germany, Denmark, France, Italy, Sweden, New Zealand and of course, America. A melodious blending of accents was heard in the din as animated voices shared sea stories, fish stories, boat breakdown stories, mystical island stories while bonding with others who also knew firsthand and loved the experience of ocean cruising. Three very jolly Frenchmen from a newly-arrived sailboat provided much of the entertainment, which got even more boisterous as the French wine flowed in addition Tahitian rum in an Arizona tea container was passed around. Speaking in slightly broken English, they joked and laughed with total abandon, often to stand up, raise their glasses and loudly sing the French national anthem in the universal language of laughter, to the delight of all. Much later in the evening, they were very insistent that we follow them back to their boat where we should sing with them after they pulled out their musical instruments to play for us. Now exhausted, we politely declined. Getting all the guests back into their dinghies after dark in the now choppy sea was challenging, requiring some coordinated effort, and in a few cases, an ‘Uber’ ride back to their boat. The evening provided a fun catharsis, and later was dubbed the inaugural event of the newly-formed [by us] Minerva Yacht Club, with promises to hold the next gathering of the club after arrival in Opua. Stay tuned for pictures of too many people on a single catamaran. What amazing memories!
Vital communications of course to the ‘world’ outside Minerva( in addition to our standard on-board InReach, Satellite phone and Sat email to family & friends),was comprised of Sat email to our Weather & Routing consultant based in Hawaii [The Weatherguy] and our daily SSB [Single Side Band radio] link to Gulf Harbor Radio [GHR] New Zealand. Whilst we were in Tonga, we listened occasionally to Gulf Harbor Radio, however now in Minerva the daily GHR broadcast became crucial across the board for all 26+ of us boaties anchored waiting for our safe weather window to sail to NZ.
Background: Established in 2012, Gulf Harbor radio is a voluntary, privately run weather analysis and forecast routing broadcast service to the cruising community during May to mid-November. In particular cruisers planning to visit NZ from the Pacific, Fiji, Noumea, New Caledonia, Tonga etc. David Sapiane and Patricia Dallas have 15 years’ experience cruising these particular routes; accordingly, they have significant practical experience in addition to their respective professional skills and backgrounds. Both are scientists, David, from the USA with a BSc in Marine Science and Meteorology, Patricia, a Kiwi, has a Masters Science Degree with honors in chemistry. Both have also been Ham radio operators for many years.
I invite all of our readers to visit www.ghradio.co.nz to learn more about these amazing people who voluntarily provide such a valuable and critical service to all the cruising and fishing community in the South Pacific.
One ‘interesting’ story: whilst in Minerva we arranged to make a financial donation from us on Wheytogo to GHR, given the importance and critical service to us anchored in this remote part of the South Pacific and also recognizing and thanking them for their cruising guidance. The next morning, we received an email from Patricia, thanking us and saying “mmm Wheytogo? That suggests the Dairy Industry! Well I (Patricia) spent many years in the NZ Dairy industry based both in NZ and overseas,
Such a small world…Patricia and I worked with and knew personally, many of the same NZ Dairy, Anchor Products and Fonterra personnel.
Our GHR linkage and connection of course became personal and memorable and a close extension as our adventure to NZ continued.
One of our most unique Minerva experiences came most unexpectedly. Now anchored for nearly a week inside Minerva Reef – on Saturday 10:00am (the VHF is of course turned on 24/7), we suddenly hear the roar of a nearby turbojet airplane (what??) as we hear a voice calling out over the VHF radio “Wheytogo! Wheytogo! Wheytogo! this is the Royal New Zealand Air Force Orion now overhead at Minerva Reef…Can I speak with the Captain? “Yes Sir, the Captain speaking...”. Captain please confirm who is on board? Your target arrival date in Opua NZ? Etc., etc.…Following our direct communique, they proceeded to communicate directly with each boat  whilst circling low overhead for perhaps 40 minutes before signing off, wishing us all a safe passage to NZ and tilting their wing down in a fast-low-level final pass. An amazing feeling…we are being watched over by the very NZ authorities who would be at the front line should we require assistance during our continuing adventure.
Thank you, NZ Air Force!