Lat: 23 deg 38′S
Long: 178 deg 39′W
We are sitting in the middle of the largest contrast any of us have ever experienced. There is no land in sight from horizon to horizon. In fact we had our last sight of land 3 days ago as we sailed away from Tongpatapu, the southernmost port in the kingdom on Tonga. The cabin of Khulula is filled with the sound of wavelets gently lapping against her side, juxtaposed against the muted roar of the Pacific Swell crashing on the reef around us. 3 miles in diameter, Minerva Reef is one of the most remarkable and stunningly beautiful places I have ever seen.
We are 25% of the way to New Zealand, partway through a passage that does not act kindly towards those who dawdle. We had no intention to stop at this place, but are compelled to as gales rage below us (further south). We have 780 miles to go, a mere hop skip and a jump compared to our distance traveled so far (over 6000miles), but this passage demands attention to detail – weather and timing details. A daily analysis of the weather systems moving around us, and the careful positioning of our boat in relation to these systems will be the difference between a windy, stormy passage and a cruisy sunny one. We’ll take the latter, please!
Yesterday morning saw all four of us in the cockpit, watching the “distance to Minerva” field on the GPS slowly clock down. With nine miles to go, all we could see was deep blue Pacific Ocean. At seven miles to go, we could make out the mast of a boat seemingly sitting among the waves, but with no sail to be seen. At three miles to go we could make out the breakers around the reef and could see a slightly smaller mast next to the original one, also seemingly bobbing up and down on the waves with no sail up. At one mile to go we could see the turquoise center of Minerva Reef, as it’s associated flat water and perfect sandbank anchorage. The colour of the water was so vivid it looked like it had been Photoshopped.
Approaching a navigational hazard such as Minerva, we are reminded of a realization that we have had on multiple occasions during this voyage. We are WIMPS compared to the seafarers of old. Historically, during the days of “wooden ships iron men” there were no charts, no weather outlooks, and the sailor were in a boat that does not sail upwind. On many occasions we have adjusted our course in the middle of the night to avoid a reef or shoal, who to us only exists on a paper and electronic chart. We know exactly where we are, and know EXACLTY where the shoal is, as well as how large the shoal is and the best course of action to avoid it. The iron men on those wooden ships would have no idea! Spare a thought for the watch boy, sitting high up in the Crow’s Nest of a wooden galleon, trying to stay awake on night shift as strains his eyes searching and searching for breakers in the night. If he spots them (assuming no rain, no mist), the captain would have no idea whether it was a small reef, a 50-mile long reef (like Fakarava), or the lee shore of another continent for that matter! Had he come across Minerva Reef, and seen it in time, Captain Cook would not have known whether it was one of hundreds of atolls (like the Tuamotu’s) or the reality that is is just one of a pair of tiny reefs in the middle of millions of square miles of featureless Pacific Ocean. It is incredible.
We have decided that the seafarers of old were completely and utterly nuts! Here we were, glancing over the bow with trepidation, searching for a reef that we know is directly ahead, and less than 5 miles away! Our GPS gives us our position to within 3 feet, and there is no confusion as to what it what. The historical captain would maybe know his position to within 150 miles, and that is if the sun had been shining recently.
At two miles to go, everything happened at once: We were furling in our headsail (the forwardmost sail on the boat) to slow down and prepare for the transit of the reef pass. In the middle of this job there are sheets and lines (ropes) everywhere, a NZ airforce plane buzzes the atoll and starts demanding that everyone check in over the radio: “This is the New Zealand Air Force, please state the name of your vessel, your intended destination, your ETA (if NZ), name of your skipper, number and names of crew, and declare any firearms or pets aboard.” Just as other boats started answering, our fishing line got hit by a 30lb yellow fin Tuna – WHAM! So here we are, trying to reduce sail, shoot a reef pass in the middle of nowhere, steer the boat, reel in a fantastic Tuna, and answer the call from a large aircraft doing passes just above our head demanding our attention on the VHF radio! Um, sorry for the delay, but we are a LITTLE busy here!! Needless to say, they did not hear a response back from s/v Khulula. All the other boats did check in though, I emailed NZ customs in the evening to file our report!
So, Minerva! Wow, anyone that gets a chance to visit this place should NOT miss out on it. Granted, it is a little out of the way, being 400 miles away from anything with an airport, having no dry land and all that, but IF you find yourself in a sailboat in this area, STOP, it is incredible. With no continents and associated alluvial runoff around, the water is completely absent of fines – translation, CRYSTAL CLEAR! Looking over the bow of Khulula, we can see a giant sandbank all around us, 12m down. Sitting in the lagoon in flat water, watching waves explode on the reef around us, with not a scrap of land in sight is an experience none of us will ever forget. Also, as you can imagine, the reef is teeming with life – such is the nature of a reef inaccessible to significant amounts of human population.
In the evening we went for a snorkel and scored a wonderful Minerva lobster. Last night we watched an amazing sunset while feasting on Yellow Fin sashimi and garlic steamed lobster tail. We are planning on leaving Minerva tomorrow morning (14th November 2007), and beeline it for NZ. It is time to take the jump. As wonderful as this place is, there are harrowing reminders in the lagoon (in the form of a couple of wrecked sailboats) of the perils of being anchored inside a submerged atoll during a storm. This ocean us unpredictable, and it is prudent to briefly enjoy the wonders of this remote place, and then move on. So, after a weather check in the early am, we begin out 780 mile passage to New Zealand and the end of the 1st year of the OceanGybe expedition. We have a HUGE amount of data to compile, and presentations to prepare, in line with our quest to continue to bring awareness to oceanic garbage.