Tonga, Minerva Reef and New Zealand

Beer of the moment : Ikale (Tonga) £1 for a 330ml bottle

Monday 1st - Tuesday 9th November 

Still in Neiafu waiting for a decent weather window to make our way to New Zealand. The challenge with our next 1200 mile crossing is that the weather between Tonga and New Zealand changes very fast and can get quite nasty if you hit a squash zone (where a high and low pressure system meet). You are supposed to wait until as late as possible to cross to New Zealand as they have just started their summer but not leave too late so that you get caught by a hurricane in Tonga ! We have paid for professional weather routing advice from Bob McDavitt who has said that based on the current forecast its best to stay in Tonga until 15th November.  All the cruisers here are waiting for the next weather window and talk non stop about it. The Mermaid has decided to cash in and has advertised weather windows for sale :)

Weather Window

Mermaid's Weather Window

They said that they were thinking of selling weather door's next as these would create a bigger opening and allow more room for manoeuvre ! 

Had a few wet and overcast days and a few hot days with clear blue skies. Weather very mixed at the moment and the wind coming from all directions. Trade Secret decide to set sail but end up having a very rough journey to Haapi and Minerva Reef. 

Robert an American single hander from Evelyn Roberts sets sail at the same time. The sea and wind conditions weren't great so 3 hours out he decided to head back. He dashes below to look at the chart and unfortunately in the process the boat ends up on its side on a reef. We hear about his predicament over the radio and head ashore to find him some help. We manage to find a local that can get him off the reef but by now its low water and very dark. He is in a notoriously reef strewn area but safe and therefore they make arrangements to get him off the following day. We call him at 1 am to check he is OK - by now its high water and waves are lapping up over the boat. It actually takes them 2 days to get his 20 ton boat shifted. Many local Tongan people turn out to help him take his possessions off the boat just in case, stay with him and cook him food on the beach. He was in great hands and there was little more that we could do to help. A few days later he returns to Neiafu in OK shape considering. The water was flat calm for 2 days whilst he was on the reef so the pounding he got was minimal. His rudder cables are broken, he has some small leaks and scratches down his hull but apart from a bit of water and sand inside it all looks OK. Luckily because there are a number of charter boats here he can get hauled out and the repairs done by the local yard. It was a sobering experience for everyone though !   

Spent our time at the internet getting weather information, shopping for last minute supplies, getting our washing done (a full day's task), refuelling etc... Had a couple of evenings out at the Mermaid and dinner on Upspirits but things are definitely quietening down.

No shortage of Bacon sandwiches :)

Bought 3 beautiful pineapples from the local market for just £1. Pineapples are plentiful here and taste absolutely amazing. They are so fresh that you can even eat the inside stalk which you normally have to cut away.


By Saturday Allan was feeling a bit better so we decided to recommence our dive course. It had been 3 weeks since we had last been diving so it took us a little while to remember how to put our kit together and then it was straight into the water. Joseph had a trainee instructor with him called Tristan so effectively we were getting 1:1 tuition. 

We were in confined sea water today with pretty poor visibility and our first task was to do a giant step from the back of the boat into the water with all our gear on. Next we had to descend to 3 meters or so depth and repeat our mask clearance and regulator retrieval/clearing manoeuvres that we had been taught in the swimming pool. Bev struggled initially to get down both through nerves and buoyancy but eventually got to the bottom with the help of the instructor pulling her down!  In her panic to get down she had failed to equalise her ears so had a bit of pain even at that depth. Allan was doing much better and only had one little panic. Bev doesn't like the mask clearing bit so after a few minutes even though she had done everything asked had had enough of getting sea water up her nose and returned to the surface.    

After a few more exercises at surface level we were back down to a depth of 4-5 meters or so. Bev was much better this time and managed to do all the exercises much more confidently. Allan unfortunately experienced a lot of pain in his ears, across his eye and along his jaw at the greater depth from his still blocked sinuses and had to return to the surface. That meant no more diving for us as Allan's pain would only get worse.

We were both really disappointed as the tuition had been first rate and we were both keen to finish the course. We had also done most of the difficult stuff and after another half days tuition would have been diving on reefs etc.. . Joseph was very understanding (they get this all the time apparently) and gave us a written statement of what we had completed so that we could pick up the course elsewhere. 

Wednesday 10th - Friday 12th November

Having completed our jobs and paid Beluga Diving for our buoy ( £3.50 a day) we decided to spend a few days in one of the secluded anchorages. We headed back to Port Mourelle which is one of the prettiest and most protected. Its just an hours sail away from town. When we arrived we couldn't believe our luck - it was completely deserted. We grabbed one of the two free mooring buoys and were soon sat enjoying the view. The bay is fringed by lush green, palm tree strewn, hills; at one end of the bay there is a white sand beach and at the other amazing views over the islands. It's a perfect spot.

That afternoon we snorkelled around the bay and saw some great fish and a large eel hiding in the coral which we kept well clear of. The water was pretty clear and warm and in the shallows very blue.

By sunset another charter boat had decided to join us but despite that the bay still resonated tranquillity and peacefulness.  All that could be heard was the birds tweeting and the grasshoppers croaking. It's truly amazing to be in a place so beautiful with no sign's of any habitation.

A local couple stopped by the boat with their baby looking to sell some local crafts. They had nothing that we wanted to buy but were so friendly that Bev traded a can of corned beef for what we can only describe as a small bag of nice smelling wood chippings.  The smell was OK but the chippings looked like a paradise nesting site for bugs so they won't see the inside of the boat ! Bev would have happily given them the corned beef but people here like to trade. They left very happy with their tin which is a real delicacy out here.

Next day Upspirits arrived and came aboard for tea and biscuits. In the distance we could see 3 humpback whales swimming - amazing. Roge and Ange came back over again later that evening for sundowners and dinner.  Bev rustled up some hummus and bread for starters followed by Spaghetti Bolognaise (Allan's favourite) and Tuna Pasta for Ange who is vegetarian.   From the boat we could see the water spouts from at least 3 whales swimming half a mile away :)

Early next morning another local couple stopped by the boat looking to sell some baskets. We had no cash left but traded a few cans of corned beef for a basket. We had bought quite a few tins in the Caribbean but always found a reason to eat something else so it was good to trade and give them to a nice couple !

The locals are very friendly and there is no pressure to buy anything here as there is in say the Caribbean. 

The weather reports showed a potential weather window between Tonga and Minerva Reef (a reef in the middle of the Ocean some 400 miles en route to New Zealand) so we have decided to go for it and to wait there if needed for the next weather window to New Zealand. News travels fast around the anchorages and across the radio and everyone is busy sorting their boat out in readiness.

Allan works on the route and getting last minute weather forecasts. Bev gets the boat sorted and cooks the good old faithful passage stew :) We do manage to fit in a swim before we are hit by a torrential downpour.

Roger and Ange head back into town and return with fresh bread and some more pineapples for us using up the last of our Tongan money. They also ask us over for dinner.

We have a great night (with any mention of the weather and impending journey banned) and get to sample some of Ange's homemade chapattis. We are in bed by 10.00 so that we can set off at first light. 

We are all set to go but not relishing the thought of 10 nights at sea and sad to leave beautiful Tonga. We have been here for a month now and whilst we have not seen as much of it as we would have liked due to weather we have loved what we have seen and have started to feel part of the local community.  

Saturday 13th - Tuesday 16th November

We are up early and underway by 6.30. The radio crackles with news from the other boats also setting out. We are sailing in the company of Upspirits, Finale, Suedama, Petrel and Quixotic. 

We had light Easterly winds, 80% cloud cover and drizzle. The weather brightened a little as we sailed along the coast but by nightfall we got caught in a convergence zone. It was a rotten night - wet, strong winds and uncomfortable. The only positive thing was that we were having a fast start to our passage ! The next day we managed to see some blue sky and conditions improved. We had made great speed - covering about 170 miles a day for the first 2 days but unfortunately the weather forecasts did not look good for a direct sail to New Zealand so on day 3 we had to reef down to ensure a daytime arrival in Minerva. It was a real shame as we were having one of our best days sailing ever - 10 knots, blue skies and calm seas. By 11.00 am on Wednesday we were outside the famous reef.

Minerva Reef is about 2 miles across and very circular. At high water you can just make out the reef under the breaking waves, at low water it stands a meter or so above sea level. It has only one entrance and luckily the charts were accurate. We approached on a very calm day and had no problem entering at 2 hours after high water. We motored over to the other side of the reef to get better shelter and dropped anchor in 10 meters of water over sand. The water clarity was amazing. It was very odd to be anchored behind a bit of coral in the middle of the Ocean. The reef was extremely calm and protected you from most of the swell. You obviously had no protection from the wind but luckily for us it was a nice calm day. There were about a dozen boats there already and the rest of the group arrived throughout the day. It was an awesome sight and experience. 

Minerva reef

Boats at Minerva Reef

Not much protection at high tide

That evening Will and Kate from Finale invited everyone over for sundowners. A great night was had by all as we swapped tales of the crossing and discussed weather forecasts. Their two boys, Tom and Patrick had made a battleground with all their toys down below and we took it in turns to go and play - Bev even got asked to read the bedtime story :). Everyone was eeking out their alcohol as it looked as though we could be stuck in Minerva for some time. Roge left his bottle of rum in his dingy to make sure he didn't get tempted to drink more than he should, still euphoric after his arrival. As everyone departed he noticed that the top had come loose and the contents were now floating in the bottom of his dingy mixed with a hint of salt water. Words could not describe his disappointment :)

Wednesday 17th November

Next morning Roger and Ange came over for tea and biscuits and to watch a DVD. As the kettle brewed, Allan decided to dial into email to check we hadn't heard anything from our weather forecaster. He had just sent us an email to say that the low that had been predicted to hit New Zealand had stalled and would allow us to get in before it hit. That meant that we needed to set off today. Hasty calls were made to the other boats and before we knew it the boat was full of people and weather talk. Bev made tea/coffee and Allan printed off weather forecasts.

Minerva reef yacht club 

The Minerva Reef Yacht Club analyses the weather - Roger, Froda, Will and Darren

Bev cooked some fantastic fresh tuna for lunch - donated by Traveller (they gave us so much it lasted for 3 large meals) and by 2.00 we had lifted the anchor and were heading out through the pass. It was another beautiful day with a gentle SW swell. Behind us we could see the sails of the other boats leaving with us. It was like being on a flotilla holiday.

It had been a real experience to stay at Minerva and we would have loved to stop longer and explore the reef more. However we were pleased to have a weather window and had had a hot shower, a great nights sleep and a chance to tidy up the boat.

Thursday 18th - Tuesday 23rd November

The first two days of the 800 mile trip were fine. There wasn't much wind initially and we had to motor on the 18th but still made reasonable progress. On the 19th we had a very bad day/night - 25 knots and a big swell on the nose. Bagpuss looked after us extremely well but would launch herself over the waves and land with a crash. If we tried to slow the boat she would get bashed about by the waves, if she went too fast she would crash and bang over each wave. Will from Finale was running a daily radio net for us all, named the Stragglers Net; everyone was fed up and worried about the pressure on their boats. 

The wind moderated slightly the next day to 20 knots but the swell was still 3m and on the nose.  Bev wasn't sleeping at all and Allan only managed the odd hour or so. It was also pretty cold at night now, necessitating full wet weather gear and socks - they hadn't had an outing for a year. We did most of our watches from inside the cabin, huddled under blankets venturing out every 15 minutes. We were unable to hold our course and had to sail further west than we ideally wanted too. Not quite what the forecast had predicted. 

By Sunday the wind dropped and we had to motor. The wind and swell were still on the nose but had dropped to 5 knots/ 1 meter. We took the opportunity to head directly South taking a direct route to New Zealand rather than continue West and managed to get some sleep at last.  

Although the wind picked up a little on Monday we still had to motor to maintain our course. Updated weather information advised us to be in New Zealand by the 25th to avoid a nasty low with 50 knots of predicted wind. We were guzzling the diesel and topped up the fuel tanks with our jerry cans.

By Tuesday the wind switched to the North West which meant that we could put the sails up at last and turn the engine off. We started to count down the miles and plan our arrival.  Bev even managed to tidy the boat in readiness for our arrival and customs inspection. As the sun set we could just a say make out land in the distance. Excitement levels rose.

Most cruisers make landfall at Opua, the most Northerly point in the Bay of Islands. With a full moon we could see the outline of the hills and wished we were arriving in day time as it is supposed to be incredibly beautiful. Still we weren't complaining - we were just glad to be in. It took us just under 4 hours to wind our way through the Bay of Islands and arrive at Opua. Luckily it was well buoyed all the way with leading lights etc.. and there were few other shore lights to confuse us. The customs quarantine dock is a huge curved dock but there was a strong current running and it took us 20 minutes or so to get tied up. We looked like novices not people who has sailed 15000 miles ! By this stage we were frozen and very tired. We sat and toasted our arrival in New Zealand and a successful crossing of the Pacific Ocean inside wrapped in blankets. Allan even turned down a third beer and by 4.00 am we were dead to the world.

Wednesday 24th November

We awoke to a very sunny but for us cold day. Several boats had arrived overnight and were waiting like us for a visit from the officials. Trade Secret, Pamina, Lionheart and Concerto all shouted their welcomes. Boy was it fantastic to be here. The bay of island looked incredible - rolling green hills, little bays and sandy beaches.

By 9.30 we were inundated with officials - 5 in total, most boats had 3 maximum. New Zealand customs is notoriously thorough but free which is always nice :) They were incredibly friendly but knew what they were doing and asked a ton of questions. All the fresh produce, eggs etc... were taken away as expected, bikes and wooden objects etc... inspected. They had a VERY good look around the boat, opening lockers etc... and Allan handed over a mass of pre-completed forms. By 10.15 we were clear and were motoring around to our spot in the Marina. We had been allocated a spot in the new big boats berth because of our width, just around the corner with Nancy and Scott from Traveller. Pamina, Lionheart and Trade Secret all came to take our lines and Allan did a nifty manoeuvre in whilst avoiding the local ferry.


By 11.00 we were in the local restaurant ordering celebratory breakfasts and burgers all round. It was great to catch up with everyone. We wandered around the local store dumfounded about what we could buy. It has been so long since we had seen first world shopping and this was just a corner shop :).

That afternoon we took a trip into Pahia, the local town, with Trade Secret to continue our celebrations. Its a very quaint town, a bit like a nice small English seaside town without the amusement arcades. It has a fantastic view of the islands and all the pretty bays and a nice ambience - the Kiwi's are incredibly friendly. Allan, Stephen and Karen discovered Guinness on draft in a waterfront bar - you could have given them a thousand pounds each and they would not have been happier :)

We stopped by a local estate agent's to look at the houses and were amazed to see the number that had fantastic sea views.  The houses were huge versus the UK and reasonably priced. The average plot is half an acre. There were some amazing designer residences built on multiple levels with infinity pools on offer which took Bev's eye but at $5m a shot we quickly moved on. 

By 6.00 we were in the local curry house ordering the works - popadoms, mixed starters, meat dishes, vegetable dishes, rice and nann bread. It tasted fantastic and was the first proper curry we had had in a year. We had been dreaming of it for a long time. The others joined us an hour or so later but by this stage we were all struggling with how much we had eaten :) We stopped at the local Yacht club on our way back and met up with many of the other cruisers who had just arrived and were celebrating their arrival. The Marina was full of cruisers that we knew and everyone was celebrating being here at last - party spirit reined.

Thursday 25th November

After a long lie in we went to see Roge and Ange who had just arrived. It was great to know that all the people we had set off with were now safely in. We took them into Pahia with us again that afternoon with Trade Secret. That evening we took Ange for a celebratory chinese all you can eat meal (no-one else was keen). For just $25 Kiwi (about £10) you got a great selection. Allan must have had 3 portions of his favourite ribs. The owner was extremely attentive and we had a great evening - again eating far too much.

Bagpuss at Opua

We stopped at the Yacht Club to meet the others quickly before heading for bed and met Matt and Mel from Meander who had come up from Auckland to visit us all. It was great surprise to see them and ten minutes later we had gained two very welcome guests.

Friday 27th November 

After a cooked breakfast and many visitors ( most to see Matt and Mel who people hadn't seen for ages) we headed into Russell with Henri and Connor whilst Matt and Mel and Stephen and Karen went into Whangerei to look for Karen's engagement ring.

Russell is directly across the bay from Pahia and is reached by a small ferry which leaves from Opua. It was originally a fortified Maori settlement and was described by Charles Darwin in 1835 as 'full of the refuse of society'. Today its a pretty little town. We had a very pleasant stroll around glad to be on shore rather than at sea. The wind was howling and the boats in the bay were being thrown around by the swell. 

That evening whilst we were planning what to do for dinner Tarren and Graeme from Waterdragon and Ann Tigue and Kyler from Windrose showed up and before we knew it a party was underway on Bagpuss. We managed to squash 10 people round our table. The drinks flowed until about 3.00 washed down with bread, cheese and nibbles.

A good night was had by all. So good in fact that we all ended up singing along to the Muppet Movie CD brought along by Kyler!

Saturday 28th November 

After a late start refuelled by bagels and scrambled eggs, we headed into KeriKeri for a look around with Matt and Mel, Stephen and Karen and Henri and Connor. The journey was incredibly pretty - a bit like Scotland - with green rolling hills. We were impressed by the first world facilities despite a lack of people. Traffic was minimal. 

First stop was the large supermarket where we gawped at all the displays and bought a ton of fresh food. We had been living on tins for quite a while and whilst we had learnt to be creative there is a limit to what you can cook. The rest of them headed off for a walk and we decided to take a stroll around the town. By lunchtime everything had closed and there were very few people about. Still it didn't spoil our enjoyment, we were happy to window shop and found a great cafe which served latte's and had complimentary newspapers and magazines.

It was a pleasant little town but we could not get over the deserted streets.

That evening we had great barbequed NZ steaks, salad and jacket potatoes (cooked in Bagpusses oven) on board Trade Secret.

Sunday 29th November

The morning was spent saying goodbye to Matt and Mel and making tea/coffee for a constant stream of visitors. That afternoon we did nothing much at all. We hadn't had time to catch our breadth since we arrived so spent a lazy afternoon and had an early night. 

Monday 30th November

Just before bedtime the night before Trade Secret had called on the radio to see if we wanted to go with them to Auckland the next day to look for Karen's wedding dress. Estrella had loaned them their car for the day. So we were up early and ready by 7.00. 

Auckland is a about 3 hours drive by car. We were pleased to see that the scenery was just the same and except for the occasional town the land was pretty much uninhabited. We stopped en route at a roadside cafe for a welcome breakfast. By 11.00 Karen and I had spotted a wedding dress shop in Parnell and the guys left us to it. Parnell is one of the upmarket area's of Auckland with lots of small shops and cafe's. It has a lovely cosmopolitan atmosphere. 

The first two shops that we went to were OK but only had one suitable dress. Karen needed her dress in under 2 weeks so we were pretty limited by what we could get. The third shop was owned by a New Zealand designer called Jane Wei. It was like entering a different world. Within 30 minutes Karen had tried on several stunning dresses and because they liked her they had agreed to make her a dress in less than 2 weeks despite having 250 dresses on order ! The Christmas period is their busy time of year as its the NZ summer.

The dress shop turned out to be the Premier Designer Shop in NZ so we were very lucky. Prices were OK as well versus the UK. Karen looked stunning in her chosen dress - Bev had a tear in her eye when she saw her.

Full of excitement they retreated to a local Irish bar to call the guys. The barman was very friendly and gave Stephen a complimentary whiskey when he entered the bar accompanied by the words 'I think you'll need this mate !' Stephen looked stunned as I don't think he thought that he would have bought a dress that day.

Karen needed to return to the shop the next day for a fitting so we decided to visit Ukulele in Bayswater Marina before finding a B&B for the night. Barbara and David are both from the Czech Republic and were really pleased to see us. Barbara made a jug of local Czech Gluhvine to warm us all up - hot red wine with spices. It was fantastic and much better than mulled wine.

They kindly invited us all to stay for the night so we went out and bought a takeaway curry to share. A great night was had but Bev flagged before all of us and was asleep by 10 !  


© Copyright Allan & Bev Dornan 2016