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Passage to Tonga


It had been 17 years since I had been offshore when completing the BT Challenge around the world yacht race and was well aware of the sea conditions that can occur in the open ocean. When asked to do the Delivery on a Lagoon 40 Catamaran in early May I was not too sure I wanted to go offshore again but the chance to visit the Minerva Islands on the way north was just too good an opportunity to turn down.

I had no previous experience in sailing a catamaran which was a bit of a concern, as going offshore required that you knew the boat and were satisfied that it was able to complete the trip. Felix, seen here at Pine Harbour, is a cruising Catamaran owned by Ben Everts and his wife, Helen. Ben has been one of the crew on my own boat, Winedown, for eight years, racing around the Waitemata Harbour and the Hauraki Gulf. Ben wanted to have four crew for the voyage, and was going to find the fourth member on a crewing web site. This was not a good idea as there are too many horror stories about having untried people on board. After discussion we filled the vacancy with another member from Winedown who has crewed for me for twelve  years.

Felix is very spacious and I was allocated a cabin with a double bed and en suite. What luxury compared to my own boat and the spartan conditions on the around the world yacht Veritas. The deck is 2m above the water, which is quite high for a 12m yacht and maintained a good ocean vista in swell up to this height. After completing the passage I have not been converted to catamarans. While they offer a stable platform and lots of space I found the movement through the water quite different and it had poor ability to go to windward compared to a monohull. The ideal boat for the passage would have been a 45 foot monohull, possibly cutter rigged, so as to get a bit more volume. While my own boat could do the trip it would have been a bit cramped for space and not very luxurious.

The voyage to Tonga was part of the biannual Island Cruising Association Pacific rally. 35 boats were participating and collected in Opua in the Bay of Islands late in April for a planned departure on 6 May visiting Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia, taking advantage of the SE Trade winds. The return to New Zealand is at the end of October. May to October avoids the Pacific Cyclone season, although cyclones can and do develop during these months. This year the sea temperature was very warm and managed to fuel Debbie, Cook, Donna, and Ella late in the season; with the last two falling into May. This weather delayed the start until a suitable weather window opened up for a safe passage. I had planned for a 14-day journey plus the relocation of the boat from Auckland to Opua. It turned out to be a 6-week event including returning to Wellington twice waiting for the weather window. At one point it looked as if there was a window on Sunday 21 May but the fleet departure was cancelled due to the various forecasts not being aligned and making them unreliable.

A number of boats lost patience and decided to leave on 21 May. A couple of days later one had a broken mast and another had engine failure. Both had to return to New Zealand. The others battled through rough conditions with many deciding to continue through to Tonga, missing a stop in the Minerva Islands, just to get out of the weather.

We finally got the weather window on Saturday 27 May and left Opua around midday. At that time I could see a front that would reach the Minerva Islands on the Friday and it was looking to combine with some active system over the Islands. As a result our route plan was to be anchored in the Minerva Islands on the Thursday and let this front pass before continuing on to Tonga. The front did pass on the Friday and while it brought some rain it was weak and brought little wind.

My role was to get the boat to Tonga, which meant handling all the navigation and weather routing. This including making sure all the necessary paper charts covering the passage were on board. We were well aware that the charts for Tonga were not accurate and care was required when approaching. Night arrival was not recommended. We planned an outer approach into Lifuka, staying in more open and deeper water. There was a bit of a panic when I re-joined the boat on the Friday before departure when none of the main navigation systems was working. After a couple of hours tracing wiring, all problems were resolved. We had seven levels of navigation available on a step down process if things failed such as a total loss of electricity or the GPS system failing. The bottom level was the trusty sextant which I had last used seventeen years ago. I spent some time before the passage re-familiarising myself with the sextant to become competent again with celestial navigation. I downloaded an app for my iPad to handle the sight reduction from the sexton altitude and universal time but found two bugs in the app during the passage and had to rely on manual sight reduction to calculate our position. The use of the sexton was just practice as the navigation throughout the passage was done by GPS.

For weather updates we utilised the Predict Wind Offshore package and received an update every 12 hours via the Iridium Satellite system. It was pretty slow but provided four forecasts. Getting consistency between the four forecasts was important to be able to believe what they were saying. We also received GDHSS weather warnings and forecasts in a written report from the Met services in Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand. Fortunately the forecasts aligned and nothing on the GDHSS reports was likely to affect us. I never felt that any weather warning needed to be charted and followed more closely. With weather certainty we were able to run with the spinnaker up during the night. Part of the weather package included weather routing, advising where to go to get the best performance based on pre-entered boat and passage parameters. I decided to try the weather routing to see what would happen and used the Predict Wind European model (PWE) to follow.

There are reasons for this choice, which I will not cover here. The weather routing took us west of the rhumb line, as could be seen on the yacht tracker. Weather routing involved a lot of work. Every 12 hours the route for the following 24 hours had to be created and loaded into the GPS system. Once loaded the route was connected to the auto helm then we sat back and enjoyed the ride.

During the passage we ran a watch system between the four crew members. I did two 2-hour evening/night watches between 5-7pm and 1-3am and a day watch between 9am and 12noon. In addition with each weather forecast it took between 1 and 2 hours to get the forecast and update the weather routing.

The sea gods were kind. On the whole passage we did not see wind above 20 knots, nor swell above 2.2m to 2.5m. There were minor issues with navigation instruments locking up that had to be resolved. We also experienced a complete failure of the auto helm rudder drive. This self corrected and we never found out what caused the problem.

Arrival at South Minerva Reef was on Day 6, Thursday 1 June at 2pm. It was hard to see the reef on approach as it is at or below sea level but we could see the ocean swell breaking on the reef, as we got close. The entrance is from the north and is quite wide. I was on the bow searching for coral hazards expecting to see the channel entrance but didn’t notice that we were through and in the lagoon. We anchored in 17m of water. The colour of the water was amazing and clear and we were able to see the bottom at 17m. The lagoon is not small. South Minerva looks like a figure 8 on its side and measures 5 nautical miles (nm) long and 2.3nm across the west side and 2nm across the east side. (North Minerva is oval and 4nm wide in the NE to SW direction and 3.5nm across the NW to SE direction)

We anchored at South Minerva for two nights and ventured onto the reef on the Friday. We had to take the dinghy onto the reef and anchored at knee depth and paddled to the outer rim where it was ankle deep. The tide was coming in and by the time we got back to the dinghy it was up to the top of our legs. There were about fifteen boats anchored in the reef, about half from the ICA rally. We were given some fish from another boat that had trolled a line on the passage up from Opua. They had caught some massive fish over 1.5m in length.

We departed South Minerva at 0830 on the Saturday following the weak front that passed during the night. There was a yacht making an emergency entrance under sail as we left, as their motor was not working. We completed the 22nm run to North Minerva and were anchored inside the reef at 1340. North Minerva was much harder to see on approach and you could only pick up a change in the water pattern when you got quite close. I can understand why so many boats have hit North Minerva because it is not clearly visible. I would definitely not want to approach the Minervas without having the necessary navigation systems and being well prepared. When anchored inside North Minerva it is like being anchored in the middle of the ocean. I had heard in discussion that the Americans created the entrance into North Minerva during World War 2, although I have not seen this mentioned in any of the articles I've read. The Minervas have a history of shipwrecks.

In South Minerva we came across a 28ft yawl that had sailed from Tauranga via Opua on 20 May (it took them 20 days to reach Tonga). They had experienced heavy weather en route and had saltwater contamination in their water and fuel tanks. They had gone crayfish hunting and were trading these for goodies including water from other boats. We saw them again at North Minerva and they called on the radio wanting to swap a crayfish for some tobacco. Not having tobacco we negotiated a fruitcake for the crayfish. The same boat arrived at Pangai a couple of days after Felix. It seemed that there were heaps of crayfish for the taking in shallow water outside the reefs but as one of them grabbed the crayfish, another had a stick to prod away heaps of reef sharks that were curious to what was going on. Rather them than me.

The water in the Minervas was quite cold (and a beautiful colour) and Helen and Greg took a very short plunge off the boat in South Minerva.

And the sunsets were glorious.

From the forecasts, it appeared that we needed to be away from North Minerva on the Sunday to avoid some higher swells approaching Tonga. We departed North Minerva at dawn on the Sunday with some hope we could reach Pangai on Lifuka during daylight on the Tuesday. If we missed this arrival we would need to sit off in deeper water until the Wednesday morning. This was basically a time/distance calculation. The transit went well until we hit some higher swell approaching Tonga. This slowed progress and for a time it looked like a Tuesday arrival was not going to be possible. We had Tongatapu 60nm of the starboard beam at 2100 on Monday. I had looked forward to the scenery on the Tonga approach but at dawn we had a heavy sky and rain. Visibility was such that we needed the radar running to check for traffic. We were meant to reach the first Tonga approach point at 5am on Tuesday but were running two hours behind schedule. Thereafter we made two starboard turns to approach the Ha’apai group. Once our direction changed the swell became less of a problem and we made better progress. All the way into Pangai the visibility was poor. So much for ta planned daylight approach. We anchored off the Ha’apai Beach Resort at Pangai at 1540 NZST and cleared Tongan Customs in Pangai at noon on Wednesday.

The voyage took 11 days, 10 not counting the day anchored at South Minerva. The rhumb line distance Opua to North Minerva was 780nm. The distance from North Minerva to Pangai was 360nm. The food on transit was fantastic and I probably gained weight on the passage. The main attraction was visiting the Minerva Islands. I originally thought we would only enter North Minerva. The fact that we visited both reefs was an amazing experience. Very little sea life was seen. We saw four seals west of Cape Brett and a single dolphin between the two Minervas. Lots of flying fish were seen above 25S. Some of the yachts did have encounters with some whales. Most of the fleet stuck to the rhumb line or went slightly east. We seemed to be the odd one out going west of the rhumb line. We had the ocean pretty well to ourselves until approaching South Minerva.

Passage to Tonga

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