Tonga to Minerva to New Zealand, dunh dunh DUNH!

It’s just over a thousand miles from Tongatapu at the southern end of Tonga and the northern port of Opua in New Zealand. What makes this passage different from pretty much all the sailing we’ve done so far is the transition from tropical weather (low pressure systems and troughs) to the temperate cycle of fronts dividing high pressure and low pressure which march eastward across the Tasman sea and wash over New Zealand in waves. The ideal passage strategy is pretty well known, but perfect cooperation from the weather is probably pretty rare.

We used a weather prediction software called Predict Wind which allows us to download four different models of wind files (called gribs), GPS (the US model), ECMWF (the European model) and two variations on these models produced by Predict wind PWG and PWE. 

Generally, they are in pretty good agreement for one to three days out and then they tend to disagree on what’s going to happen, sometimes quite radically. The value of comparing different predictions is that it gives you a heads up for ‘what-if’ scenarios. 

The most common strategy for this passage is make a long westward loop, with a stop at the Minerva reefs which provide a good anchorage and a chance to get the latest predictions for the final push.

*See our post from Minerva: minerva-north-haven-in-the-pacific

What everyone looks for are decent (enough) conditions to make that arc as you leave Minerva (not bashing directly into southern head winds) and timing which assures you won’t encounter a nasty cold front north of 30° South latitude.

The ideal is to arrive on the tail of a high just ahead of the front with nice north or even northwest tail winds … but that timing can be risky. 

As we arrived this year in Minerva we’d been looking at the models that suggested ten to fourteen days out that there might be a weather window around November 6th (which is the date we arbitrarily listed with NZ immigration as our arrival date). The European model, however warned of some very high winds from due south or even south west that would make going straight from Minerva tough. Still, the other models weren’t showing conditions quite as strong. They predicted that the high pressure creating this squash zone wouldn’t stall as long as the ECMWF predicted. We got to Minerva very early and waited for daylight to go in (in fact, we now know you can go in and even anchor in the dark, the Navionics charts are accurate and there are no big hazards). We could see boats arriving behind us and some came in after us, but several made the decision to keep going. One Kiwi boat we know left the morning we arrived, also hoping to make a possible earlier arrival in NZ.

 As it turned out the European model called this one, and the boats that continued on had a pretty tough time. One trimaran we know reported 7 meter seas and 50 knot gusts, the captain described it as an ‘exhilarating, wet sail,’  but it didn’t sound very comfortable. I’m not totally sure his crew was in complete agreement.  The experienced Kiwi boat called it “gale conditions.” One boat turned back for Minerva after two days. The bottom line is that no one who continued on was making very much southing, despite getting beaten up. 

We spent three nights in Minerva watching the weather and enjoying that magical spot. The winds blew in the twenties but it’s a very solid anchorage and was perfectly comfortable even when it got a little bumpy at high tide. 

By the time we were ready to leave for the 800 mile leg to New Zealand on November 1, there were 30 boats anchored in Minerva (it could fit a hundred easily). Twenty-three left at the same morning, and we joined them, leaving toward the end of the pack. 

What we were seeing in the gribs that made us go were predictions that the wind should start to swing east as the high finally moved off and that the next front ‘shouldn’t’ hit New Zealand  until the 7th (a weak front) and maybe not even until the 9th or 10th (more of a real front). Based on watching the weather this year, I’d say that made for an unusually generous weather window. 

The two obstacles we needed to plan for were wind and seas that were still more southerly than optimal and what looked to be a big chunk of calm airs for the last two days. For this passage I think most would accept some windless motoring rather than encounter the 6 meter seas and gales conditions off the coast of New Zealand that sunk a boat this year 22 miles from her destination. 

This is the passage that Allora was made for. She sails to windward like a champ so that we were able to comfortably point higher, meaning head south a little sooner, than much of the fleet. She’s also fast with wind ahead of the beam, mainly I think because she handles the seas so well. We started passing boats the first night, most during Wyatt’s midnight watch. Diana had volunteered to help run an SSB radio net (the “Tonga to NZ” net), so we were apprised of most of the boats positions that way. By the end of third day of windward sailing (45-60 degrees apparent) we had passed everyone except a Dutch trimaran. Then the wind began to die, and this is where Allora’s advantages as an offshore passagemaker also shine. We carry 190 gallons of diesel so we had no reason to save fuel and wait to start motor sailing to keep up our speed. Our experienced Kiwi friend, Tony, who’s done this passage many times had counseled us not to let our boat speed drop below five knots, and since we had the fuel we turned directly on the rhumb line and kept her moving. With an 80 horse Yanmar, Allora also motors comfortably at 7.5 to 8 knots (uses more fuel, but we had it, and it is better for the diesel to run hotter). In the end, we used our engine for two days, which is the longest we ever have. But boats that waited to turn their engines on arrived a day later than us, so they ended up motoring pretty much just as long. Boats without the fuel range came in two days after us when the wind began to pick up again. We arrived at 1:00PM on the 6th of November.

Okay, so now please forgive me for a little boasting. A lot went into planning this infamous passage and we’ve been thinking about how it would go for a very long time. We were the first of the “Minerva Yacht Club” boats to arrive in Opua, ahead of the trimaran because they did not have the motoring capacity we do, and ahead of a 52 foot catamaran because that boat could not sail as fast with the wind ahead of the beam.

Part of what made this a great passage was our strategy. Initially, we heeded the common wisdom of heading for “John’s Corner” at 30S 173E. The idea of this approach is that it gets you closer, but you’re still in a position to slow down if a front comes in sooner than predicted so that you confront it above 30 degree where it is less dangerous. Then, as the wind swung more east we headed up, but not right away on the rhumb line, but cutting the corner. We were faster at 50 degrees apparent and getting a better distance made good (DMG) to New Zealand. Boats that headed for the rhumb line too soon fell behind us because the seas were rougher to the east. Boats that waited even longer to head up added a lot more miles to their passage. Using the engine to motorsail when our speed dropped below 5 knots, allowed us to turn on the rhumb line once it was clear that the coast was clear for a Nov 6 arrival, and assured that we could spend one less night at sea. 

Though we love to sail and hate to motor, the conditions were eventually so beautiful and glassy calm it was a different kind of pleasure. With the sails down it was also easier to detour when we spotted a pod of pilot whales and to pause for Wyatt to get some beautiful shots of the first Alabatross we’ve seen. It also gave Diana, Wyatt and I a chance to get the boat ready for inspection by Customs. 

Wyatt’s shots of the Grey Headed Albatross.
©WLS

In the end, we couldn’t have wished for a better passage and we couldn’t be happier with Allora. What a boat!

~MS

Diana disclaimer: All these shots are taken during the placid last two days of our passage. Before that, the camera wasn’t coming out too much!!

 

Minerva North, Haven in the Pacific

©s/v Taurus

Of all the places Allora has taken us, North Minerva Reef, is a stand out. The reef literally emerges only 90cm at low tide, and when walking on what feels like the Pacific’s very precipice, we had the surreal sensation that we’d been transported to another world. I urge you to read this article from New Zealand Geographic, which lays out the inherent hazards and contentious history of this fascinating ‘land:’

empire-of-the-sea

We, like many others, made a stop at Minerva North, to break up the often difficult  passage between Tonga and New Zealand. Most boats poise themselves to try to stop, but the weather conditions have to be right to enter the pass and take the time in ‘pause’ mode as opposed to continuing onward, so we felt lucky to manage 3 days in the fold of the protected lagoon. We weren’t alone, though! The 30 boats at anchor around us were dubbed, ‘The Minerva Yacht Club!’

Wyatt and I freedove the pass and found a wonderland of color and life.
Marcus sought some Giant Trevally in the surf, but the surf almost sought him!
Remnants of a less positive interaction with the reef.

The Kingdom of Tonga

Abstract taken at the wreck in Fonoifua.
The Te’ovala is worn by women and men and always by anyone who works a government job. This is the Customs and Immigration gal.

Woven belted mats, ta’ovala
worn over black missionary garb
maze of lifted islands pushed up by the Tongan trench
friendly islands, plotting Cook’s demise
faint volcano in the distance, a perfect cone
further south, the world’s newest island
space alien squid hovering by the swim step

The Bigfin Reef Squid are a short-lived species, with a maximum recorded lifespan of 315 days.

weekly troughs of rain and wind and gray
hard scrabble bottoms for the anchor
numbers for the anchorages keep sailors from learning the hard to pronounce names
everything at the Neiafu market is four dollars

In the Neiafu market/Vava’u. She dropped her corn cobb repeatedly and just kept munching on it – no issues about too little dirt in her diet.

fish and chips on a floating barge
God is Alive bar, blasting music across the still water
Ag festival for the King

©HRS
Ag festival finery

dead zebra sharks on display,
a temporary binge in the off limits fishing zones
people go crazy to show what they have

Mushroom Leather Coral.

soft coral, rocks and canyons, nudibranchs and filefish

Haley and Liam caught in a romantic snorkeling moment.

lobster, lobster, grab one if you dare

Longnose Filefish can alter their color and pattern to match their surroundings and deter predators.

outer islands, Ha’apai, people live simple lives

Fine mats are the most treasured possessions in Tongan households.

weaving, fishing, making babies

it’s a long boat ride to the nearest grocery store
power from a solar project paid for by Japan
kids play on the beach

This was fun till the tide came up to their faces!

leap from the trees into the sand
make toys of VHS tapes, decorating wood fences with shiny ribbon

sailing the flat water behind the lagoon
hove-to for humpbacks
whales sing as we dive

There goes Wyatt’s air!

high pitched songs, deep rumble in your chest
rolly anchorages, whale nursery anchorages, long beach anchorages

©WLS
Kelefesia as seen from Wyatt’s drone view = as sublime from the air as it was to be there!

coconut heart pancakes!

©MPS
Older, sprouting coconuts produce this rich flavored ‘heart.’ Not easy to extricate, but we make the most yummy pancakes using them!

Sleeping mom’s providing whale-sized nourishment using her Antarctic reserves
tail slapping to keep junior in line
rambunctious males, out for a good time
call mmmhhh mmwwwhmmm  whummmmmmh

©MPS

Cetacean society,
any whale who’s any whale is here

©MPS

Tonga’s the place to be, leviathan

©HRS
Well, Hello!

no predators, warm water, but no food either
what if humans vacationed the way humpbacks do

©HRS

on a diet
no Piña coladas, might just put cruise ships out of business
think of the savings in fuel!
~MS

©HRS
Nature’s bit of lovely!
Tidal flat art.
These beetles were around the size of a thumbnail and STUNNING!!!
The Hosea Primary School put on a cultural show as a fundraiser in conjunction with the Blue Water Festival in Vava’u.
©HRS
Astrophotography with an anchored (moving) Allora is a wee bit tricky – nice work, Haley!

We had all 3 kids (and Liam, too) visit over the course of our 3 months cruising around Tonga, so you’ll see some family faces among the locals:

Ghost Crabs are a hoot!

 

Still Going Strong!

(Why the title of this post? Well, that’s what the young guy working at the airport said when I picked up my own duffel bag! Yeah, he figured I was ‘still going strong’ just to be able to DO that! Poor kid, you can imagine the reaction I gave him?!)

We left Allora in Neiafu, Tonga on a mooring (always a bit disconcerting), and dashed to San Francisco for my brother’s wedding! After that three day, joyous whirlwind, we shot over to Bozeman, Montana for a couple weeks of catching up with friends. We had two indulgent stays: at the Lawson’s whimsical loft and Katy Hood’s historic Southside home (giant thank you’s to both of you) and soaked up some much needed love with our dear ones. I wasn’t quite in the photo mode, so there are only a few here and much else is left tucked in a corner of our hearts. Thanks to Lori (and maybe others?) for a few of the family/wedding shots.

 

“Whales! One o’clock, Starboard bow! Not that far!”

There isn’t much about humpback’s that you can get “used” to
fin and back slipping above the waves
scale inspires awe
flukes waving goodbye, whispering into the drink
surge of whales on the move
juvenile males on a mission
shouldering water ahead of them as they porpoise on the surface
strange knobby heads rushing through the foam
in calmer water, a spy hop, slipping up to peak at YOU
soft blow of a sleeping whale
the sudden totally unexpected wild audacity of a breach
that always always comes out of nowhere
and again
young whale under the stand up paddle board
gripping the camera, ready to go under
calves in the anchorage, sleeping with Mom
arced above her head
curious little ones spy hopping by the stern
or practicing their breaches
flopping, silly half out
then the day they show everyone what they’ve got
~MS

(Rough camera moves, sorry, but the proximity had us sufficiently EXCITED!!!)

 

Suwarrow, A Nature Reserve

Mahi Mahi detail. Caught this Mahi-Mahi enroute from Suwarrow to Tonga.
LARGE coconut crabs are abundant in Suwarrow.

Our stop in Suwarrow was comprised mostly of hiding from 30 knots winds created by a squash zone from a gigantic 1044 high in the south with effects that had people digging in from the Gambier to Tonga. So we don’t have much to offer about what you might do there to enjoy yourself. What we found out was more what you can’t do, and after French Polynesia and the Tuamotos the list felt onerous. Here’s what the ranger who was running things in the winter of 2019 said:

No anchoring except at anchorage island by the ranger station. Period. 

No diving. Period. (Why?)

No fishing inside the lagoon. 

No going ashore on ANY motu in the park anywhere except the ranger island (supposedly because of their rat eradication program)

Technically the rules even dictate when you can leave through the pass (not before noon) though I have no idea how they think they would enforce that. 

There are more no no’s, mainly things you’d expect to be prohibited. At the bottom of the list, there’s a caveat that says the ranger can add anything he wants to the list, and the current Ranger took that to heart. 

That leaves snorkeling, pretty much, and nothing else.

Unfortunately, though this obviously feels excessive and extreme, the behavior of some yacht visitors has served to make the ranger feel more adamant about enforcing and expanding his rules. It doesn’t help that some people feel they have a right to harvest coconut crabs and even lament not having taken more when they found out they could sell them for big money in Niue. Or that some members of the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) showed up before the legal opening, trashed the place (according to the ranger) and left their flag planted on the beach. Suwarrow is a designated sanctuary and should be treated with the same respect as a national park anywhere. 

Because the forecast called for the possibility of SE winds over 50 knots we asked for permission to anchor in the better protected SE corner and were denied. Unwilling to test the ranger’s theory that the allowed anchorage would be safe (there is at least one yacht sunk on the NW corner of that tight anchorage with south exposure), we moved, despite his objections to the south east corner, invoking our right under international law to ‘safe haven.’ Our biggest concern was the 3 mile fetch that the allowed anchorage would be exposed to. The anchoring was very poor in the SE, with coral and bommies everywhere, but it was definitely a safer spot. If we did drag we had miles to react rather than the tight lee shore of the approved anchorage. This decision did not make us popular with the head ranger, but we felt we had no choice for the safety of our boats. In the end I don’t think we saw over 35 knots, but I personally would make the same decision again. 

We left as soon as it was over.
~MS

Underway.

9° south of the equator

“It’s hot here,” the Pastor’s lovely wife said with a smile, “it’s always hot. Sometimes you can see some flowers blooming and you know it’s Spring, but it’s always hot.” The village of TeTautua does not own enough cars to have much of a road so its houses tend to meander along foot trails, which double as scooter and motorcycle paths, a web centered on the imposing blue and white Cook Island church. Ungirded by streets, houses with deep porches, windows without glass, only tattered cloth curtains, lay scattered at random angles. You might forget to notice that there are no dogs (they have been disallowed by the island council, which makes everything its business). Their absence, as much as the haphazard city planning, creates the feeling of a ghost town, especially if the children are in school and the hot sun is broiling the gray coral gravel underfoot.

Hakono Saitu

The island is losing its population, slowly, people emigrating to bigger more populous islands, or New Zealand. Though there is an abundance of fish, there are few (maybe none) of the occupations that keep idle hands busy in even the smallest midwestern ghost town. In the big village on the other side of the atoll there is a nurse. There is a policeman, somewhere. There are teachers. But there are no stores. There are scant few gardens, a difficult enterprise in the hard limestone pavement that constitutes the earth of an atoll. There are thriving coconut groves, possibly the remnant of a copra operation, the kind that is still subsidized in French Polynesia. For a while there was a booming pearl farm business, which succumbed to cyclones and a disease among the oysters. Perhaps the mental, emotional, spiritual space that in North American suburbia is filled with cars and traffic lights, malls, donut shops, Home Depot and Costco, here is filled by the sea herself and the Cook Island Christian Church.

Takake Akatapuria
Tumukahu Marsters/Pastor

It’s no secret that missionaries did a number on the South Pacific. This is still one of the main places those white shirt and tie young scrubs in the Salt Lake airport are all headed. But it was news to me that God apparently doesn’t want you to fish on Sundays (I thought Jesus was a fisherman). No work, no play, no music, no swimming (sound familiar?). Like a friendly, island version of the Taliban, they take these injunctions seriously in Penrhyn and they made it their business to see that we anchored right by town to ensure that we weren’t off enjoying ourselves on Sundays doing the devil’s worst out of sight of the church’s two story pulpit.

Naturally, we were invited to church. Hats strictly required for women (strictly not allowed in Tonga) but definitely NOT permitted for men. Diana showed up with a beautiful head wreath from Rapa (made for church there) but here she was told she had to have a hat that covered the top part of her head (cuz God is looking down, I guess?). Long pants for men (in the tropics!), luckily Mike had a light pair I could borrow so I didn’t have to wear jeans. The Pastor’s white pants (God only knows how he kept them white) were unhemmed and about eight inches too long for him, so he walked on them, barefoot when he greeted us at his house and then under sandals for the service. He carried a bible, well worn with pieces of folded paper tucked among its pages, King James translated to Māori/Tongarevan, the language of the Cook Islands.

We arrived in the morning to find out that regular church had been cancelled because an elder woman, Mama Takulani, mother of 12, had died in her sleep early that morning. She had lived on Penrhyn her whole life, in this village of about fifty people, with barely one dirt road and about four cars to drive on it, no stores, no post office, nothing but a collection of very simple homes occupied by people who must know each other very, very well.

We gathered at her house, the palangi (foreigners) outside on plastic chairs to witness a three hour funeral, mostly singing, which seemed unscripted and improvised, arising spontaneously from the group of women seated on the patio floor. Men joined in, and the harmonies were unlike anything we’d ever heard, oddly discordant and complex, a fascinating mix of church hymns and Polynesian music, all the more intense as an expression of mourning. Speeches were given by men, long speeches, in the local language, with occasional acknowledgements in English to the visiting Palangi. The woman’s body was carried to the church, in through the left-hand door, briefly spoken over, then exited through the right-hand door. She was buried in a pre-built concrete crypt in a hole dug that morning by a backhoe outside her bedroom. She was covered with a tapestry and laid in the ground. It felt very odd to witness something so profoundly personal and significant for our hosts, though they went out of their way to make us feel welcome, and afterward there was a feast, with an insistence that visitors eat first.

The next Sunday (Father’s day!) respecting their local commandments and traditions, I did not fish. The first time that has happened since I became a father, 27 years ago. Instead, we went again to church to be harangued, mostly in Tongarevan, but also in English, by a series of men who (like the pastors of Rapa), utilized a hierarchically arranged pulpit (literally with stairs) to wield their authority. Maybe you need something organized like this on an island with nothing but turquoise water and sun and fish, to keep people from running amok, though it felt so out of place with the usual island vibe of very friendly, relaxed, open people. Singing provided some relief in the service, though the performance was more structured and a little more hymn-like than what we witnessed at the funeral. There’s a lot of this kind of singing in Penrhyn, all through the week, several times a day on Sunday. They grow up with this music, so they sing with passion and confidence and subtlety. The women often hold a hand to their face as they sing, and I wasn’t sure if it was to help them hear their voices (the way you might imagine Sting in a recording studio), or to hide their faces and wide open mouths. One young woman held a book that blocked most of her face. Afterward, there was another generous feast at the Pastor’s house, with pictures of the gathering of foreign visitors (representing several countries in Europe and North America) to be posted on Facebook.

When it seemed we would be on the island for another Sunday (waiting for a weather window to depart, and fishing) we decided we would skip church, but thought we’d better say something about our decision in advance. The Pastor seemed relieved (the unexpectedly large group of sailors must have been hard on his freezer, which would not be refilled until the next supply ship, months out). He did admonish us not to do anything on our boats, especially not swim, and seemed to joke (not sure here) that the sharks were in league with God and would enforce the no swimming on Sunday rule. Diana spent about five hours in the water cleaning our hull anyway, and lived to tell.

Though we chaffed at being required to observe the religious regulations of the island, presented to us as Law (which almost certainly cannot have been constitutional in a country governed by New Zealand) we were also overwhelmed by the generosity of their reception. Gift giving and hospitality is a pervasive and vibrant cultural practice throughout Polynesia, and they outdid themselves. We did our best to give back, too. And although the dogmatic Christianity was a tad stifling, we still managed to have some good connections. The Pastor was a bit of an odd duck in that way, at least for me, it was very hard to engage him in a regular conversation. His relationship to the visiting foreigners seemed mostly about the opportunity to give speeches and express the piety of his flock and the importance of his position as their spokesman.

We were the fourth boat to visit Penrhyn in 2019, but within two days there were eight more boats. Most of them part of a group of kid boats (that is, boats which have kids on them, who generally drive the social schedule), all loaded with school supplies to give to the children of Penrhyn. Liza, of the boat Liza Lu, is a teacher from New York whose class had started a pen pal relationship with Penryhn before coming. She had more postcards to deliver and spent time at the school helping the kids compose new post cards that she would mail back to her school. Our friends on Alondra, marine biologists with two girls, eleven and twelve, brought in microscopes and spent a day with the students peering at everything from fly eyes to butterfly wings and gecko toes. A huge hit. The boat ‘Panacea’ with Tuomo, Reka and their kids presented a slideshow about how they’d come to be there aboard a sailboat, and shared glimpses of all the countries they’d seen. The families aboard s/v’s Luminesce, Calle II, Itchy Foot and Caramba all participated, too, and Adagio’s crew were elemental helping with the mosaic. It was an unusually bustling ‘point in time’ on the sleepy eastern side of Penrhyn … ~MS