Monday, December 3, 2012

Nuku'alofa and Minerva Reef

Since the beginning of the time when sailors first began to cross bodies of water, away from the shelter of land, voyages were planned with regard to the weather’s current conditions and seasonal patterns.  As modern sailors, we are no different.  So, when making plans to sail south from Neiafu, Tonga to Tongatapu and the country’s capital city of Nuku’alofa, we took into account a forecast that indicated a hasty departure was in order.  By leaving soon, we’d likely have good winds for a swift, overnight passage but would have to forgo stopping at some of the islands we’d missed in the Ha’apai area during our first visit.  Delaying our departure would mean either motoring in calm conditions or waiting for another favorable window.

Our trip to Nuku’alofa worked out pretty much as planned with the exception of an approaching area of high winds and rain that enveloped us during the last few hours of our sail.  As we wound our way between the reefs and through the channels leading to the anchorage off “Big Mama’s” resort on the island of Pangaimotu near Nuku’alofa’s harbor, we began to experience winds in excess of 30 knots and were fortunate to get our anchor set just as we began to be pelted by heavy rain.  During the next stormy hour, visibility dropped to just a few hundred feet and several boats in the anchorage began to drag their anchors requiring them to move and reset.  Before long, the worst of the weather had passed and, by late afternoon, a few rays of sunshine were even illuminating the area.

Since beginning our South Pacific trip, Mark had looked forward to returning to this place with Anne aboard “Blue Rodeo”.  Four years ago, he had flown to Tonga and joined his good friend Steve aboard his boat “Ellusive”, anchored off Pangaimotu and the two then sailed the boat to New Zealand.  At that time, Mark and Anne were still boat shopping and dreaming of cruising and arriving here aboard “Blue Rodeo” was truly a “dream come true”. 

While at Pangaimotu, we had to opportunity to reconnect with many cruising friends and  join in the festivities at “Big Mama’s” one evening when she put on an extravagant anniversary dinner complete with a complimentary buffet including the usual Tongan specialties and several roast pigs.  A band was even brought to the island for the occasion and we partied and danced in the sand until well past our normal bed-times.  Places we’ve visited this year are often described as “cruiser-friendly” but few live up to the charm and genuine hospitality displayed at “Big Mama’s”.

With apprehension about the long and often stormy passage to New Zealand weighing heavily on everyone’s minds, daily analysis and discussions of “weather windows” was the common topic among cruisers over the next several days.  Our hope was to sail the 280 miles from Nuku’alofa to Minerva Reef where we’d hoped to spend a week or more before continuing another 800 miles to New Zealand.  It was based on that plan that we set sail from Pangaimotu, bound for Minerva Reef, with fresh breezes pushing us steadily along for the first portion of the trip.  Not far from the islands that make up Tongatapu, Anne’s good fishing luck continued when she successfully landed a thirty-plus pound, Big-Eyed Tuna.  We would later dine on delicious, seared tuna steaks served with a Wasabi and rice wine vinegar sauce.   During the next two days, winds shifted to a direction causing us to tack back and forth to make progress toward Minerva and seas grew quite choppy and confused leaving us with a rather uncomfortable ride.  Eventually, as expected, the winds lightened forcing us to start our motor and motorsail the remaining few miles to our destination.  We had hoped to reach the narrow pass entrance through the reef into Minerva’s lagoon during daylight hours but it wasn’t until after midnight that we arrived.  Aided by bright moonlight and armed with accurate GPS waypoints and his knowledge from having been to Minerva before, Mark felt comfortable entering after dark and proceeding the two miles across the lagoon to the southeast side where six other cruising boats were anchored.  It was a beautiful sight to see starlight reflected on the sea around us and the twinkle of the boats’ anchor lights beckoning from a distance.    Before long, we were anchored and settling into our bed for a sound and peaceful night’s sleep.  With the reef encircling us and calm, flat water around us, we felt as though we were anchored in a lake in the middle of the ocean.

We spent the next day snorkeling in the crystal-clear water inside Minerva’s lagoon seeing rays, eels and huge lobster and surprising several sharks sleeping in caves along the reef’s undercut edges.  The calm conditions and truly spectacular water color and clarity provided a visual feast.  After our snorkeling excursion and while driving our speeding dinghy from a standing position to better see the shallow areas, Mark had to sit down to quell a momentary feeling of vertigo caused by racing over the glassy- smooth water and the incredible detail of the bottom topography rushing by underneath us.  He said he felt as though we had become airborne and had no idea how high we were above the surface.  It was quite a surreal sensation.

Our plans to enjoy Minerva reef for a few days longer changed that night when we hosted dinner aboard “Blue Rodeo” and we joined by friends John and Lisa from the yacht “Orcinius” and Mike and Karen from “Chapter Two”.  Lisa brought along her IPad with a picture of the latest weather forecast for our area that she had downloaded via satellite phone and computer.  Our group intently studied the wind forecast map showing a tropical low pressure area (precursor to a cyclone or hurricane) forming within days and forecast to head our way.  It looked as though the only prudent thing to do would be to leave for New Zealand sooner than planned and put as many miles between us and the storm as possible.  So, with that in mind, we shared a delicious meal of Anne’s chicken curry while engaging in light-hearted conversation.  Inside each of our minds though was the beginning of the mental preparation necessary for leaving Minerva and the passage ahead.  Such is the life that we have now grown accustomed to...good times balanced with a nearly-constant need to assess the environment around us to insure our safety and security.  

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