|Mark doing sail repair on deck at North Minerva Reef|
|Repaired mainsail clew straps|
|Rough wharf at Nuku'alofa|
|Sunrise at Pangai Motu|
|Big Mama's restaurant|
|Tongatapu blow holes|
|Our own private island|
Where does the time go? It’s hard to imagine that two months have passed since the hectic days leading up to our departure from New Zealand. With just days remaining on “Three Sixty Blue’s” extended Temporary Import Permit that allowed us to keep her in the country duty-free, we seized the opportunity to sail north to Tonga in the first decent weather window to present itself since the official end of tropical cyclone season.
The 1000+ mile passage from New Zealand to the South Pacific tropical islands presents challenges mostly due to frequent low pressure systems that spawn southwest of the country and sweep across the region bringing rain, high winds and rough seas. Between the lows, highs often fill-in offering better weather but can mean accelerated winds on their periphery and too little for good sailing in their interior. With this in mind, we officially cleared-out of NZ and set sail from Marsden Cove Marina on May 12th bound for Tonga with a planned stop at the Minerva Reefs.
After a few hours of motoring sailing to clear the North Island’s wind shadow we took advantage of a 15 knot westerly wind that pushed us smoothly along the rhumb line to South Minerva Reef for the first 24 hours of our passage. Conditions became more challenging for the next 24 hours as we entered a convergence zone between pressure systems. As expected, winds built to nearly 30 knots with fairly rough seas and some of the hardest rain we have ever seen. The rumble of thunder and frequent lightning in the squalls added to the drama. This being our first offshore passage on our new (to us) catamaran, we were treated to an assortment of different sounds and gyrations compared the more familiar ones we’d come to know on our 50’ monohull “Blue Rodeo”. Overall, the ride was no worse or less comfortable than with the single-hulled yacht but different enough to feel somewhat foreign. With each hour though as we surged ahead sometimes surfing at nearly 14 knots with waves slapping us from odd angles our confidence in the design of “Three Sixty Blue” grew and grew. Before long, what was foreign became familiar and predictable.
By day three, we had sailed into the big high pressure system and, as expected, encountered winds so light that we resorted to motor sailing toward our destination. Our trusty diesel engines we used off and on to augment sail power for the next few days until, toward the end of day five, we found ourselves passing abeam South Minerva Reef. We had visited this coral-fringed lagoon, 300 miles from the nearest land mass in 2013 and we were eager to anchor there again for a few days to enjoy the solitude, natural beauty and splendid snorkeling venues. Prior to our arrival, we had received reports from a large, twin-hulled motor yacht that had been anchored there but was moving to the greater protection of North Minerva reef because of uncomfortable conditions caused by large ocean swells passing over the reef causing rolly conditions in the anchorage. The decision was made to bypass the south reef and continue another 26 miles to the north one where we knew we’d find smoother water.
At about that time, Mark noticed that the foot and clew (bottom outboard corner) of our mainsail had detached from the boom and was flogging in the wind. Without these attachment points, furling the sail around the mandrel inside the boom was impossible so we hurried to drop the entire sail to the deck and lash it securely for the remainder of the passage. Once inside North Minerva’s lagoon and protected from the rough ocean swells, we drug the sail onto the trampoline between the forward portions of our hulls and Mark carried his sewing machine to the starboard foredeck to begin replacing the sail’s three, nylon webbing clew straps that had either broken or chafed through. Thankfully, we had the equipment, materials and skills to accomplish the repairs. Within two hours, we were back in business with the sail re-installed and properly furled. When replacing TSB’s mast and boom in New Zealand, we opted for in in-boom furling system that reduced the challenges of managing a large, heavy, fully-battened mainsail. Since this system is fairly new to us, we realize we are still on the steep part of the learning curve when it comes to operating it and the powerful electric winch that both raises and furls the sail. The damage to the sail left us determined to develop more finesse and pay closer attention to the process each time the sail is raised or lowered. Hopefully, this repair will be the last one necessary of this kind.
Once the sail was repaired, we wasted no time in getting out for some exploration. We shared the anchorage with several other boats who had left New Zealand at around the same time as we did. While there, more trickled including on gaggle of about 10 boats participating in a rally sponsored for the Island Cruising Association. Before long this remote reef and lagoon became a small community with dozens of bright anchor lights adding to the starlight-illuminated night sky. The usual social scene quickly ensued and we gladly accepted invitations for coffee, happy hour cocktails and nibbles, and even a delicious BBQ dinner aboard another yacht with a couple we met in our marina in New Zealand. Our evening with them was rather surreal as we comfortably lounged aboard hundreds of miles from land reveling at the surrounding reef’s changing colors as the sun slipped toward the horizon. Our hosts produced a large charcoal BBQ and treated us to grilled NZ lamb and sausages along with an assortment of side dishes. It was one of those evenings that left us feeling so very fortunate to be able to live this amazing life.
During one of our snorkeling excursions outside of the reef in the pass leading from the open ocean, Mark convinced Anne to follow him through the deep water across the channel to the reefs on the other side. Worrying about sharks, Anne is always more conservative when it comes to open ocean swimming, especially in areas with reduced visibility and water too deep to see the bottom. Reluctantly, Anne agreed to follow Mark but about half way across our swim was interrupted by a column of grey reef sharks spiraling up from the depths and displacing an unsettling amount of curiosity toward us. Within moments, there were no fewer than thirty sharks of varying sizes circling around us making us think of the “B” horror movie “Sharknado” where hapless folks are terrorized by a tornado filled with sharks sucked-up from the ocean. Our “Sharknado” encounter left us nervous to the point that we reversed course and headed back toward shallower water and the safety of our anchored dinghy. As we swam, frequently glancing back to see if we were being followed, we reminded ourselves to keep calm and swim as smoothly and quietly as possible so an not to appear vulnerable to the sharks. Our return to the dinghy was uneventful but Mark heard more that a few “I told you so’s” from Anne about what she maintains was a foolish endeavor. Oh well, at least we got back aboard with all of our extremities in tack and a good story to tell friends.
As sailors, we pay close attention to current and forecast weather so when a forecast passing low offered the prospect of good sailing winds for the remaining three hundred mile passage to Tonga’s capital city, we raised anchor a few days earlier that planned and hopped aboard a 25 knot freight train that sent us surfing toward our destination. By the second day of the passage however, the winds had lost their oomph and we had to resort to motor sailing to the island group and through the reefs surrounding Tongatapu. Within about 48 hours after leaving Minerva, we were temporarily tied alone side a rough concrete wharf in Nuku’alofa’s inner harbor. A few hours later, visits from representatives from Customs, Immigration, Health and Bio-security were finished and we were officially back in Tonga. Formalities completed, we motored TSB across the bay the Pangai Motu and the anchorage off Big Mama’s resort. This had been our jumping-off point in 2012 when we left for New Zealand. Discovering new places is always fun, exciting and somewhat stressful but coming back to someplace familiar certainly brings up a warm and satisfying feeling not unlike what we feel each time we return home. We can only imagine what the mariners of old felt when they returned home after years at sea pushing the limits of the known world!