Passage from New Zealand to Minerva Reefs

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May 27, 2017. Our last morning in New Zealand. The boats in the anchorage are no longer here, the little island in the middle of the bay is missing and the trees on the hills of the shores are all gone, along with the hills and the shores. Nothing is left but Fata Morgana, waking up inside a dense grey cloud of fog.

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Fogs are confusing, especially at sea. It feels as though the world has almost disappeared. As if you are inside an egg and you are not moving at all. Inside the fog, you can easily lose your way and head in the wrong direction. You can bump in another boat or crash on the rocks, so you have to be very careful when navigating in fog.

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I am worried and sad. Because of the fog, but mostly because we are leaving. After six months, we are leaving again. I will miss this green beautiful land and its people who showed us what true hospitality really is. New Zealand is all I have imagined and more. This country surpassed my expectations with its beautiful wilderness, diverse nature, neat tranquil towns, and their humble friendly inhabitants. Here we made many new friends, who became as close to us as if they were our family. The hardest thing was saying good-by to our new brothers and sisters.

I am also afraid. We are heading north to where we came from six months ago. To where the ocean became crazy one night, with storms assaulting our boat with big waves, and no one around for hundreds and hundreds of nautical miles. We were never in danger then- we already knew what to do and we did it, but it was painful. The waves thrashing our little boat as if trying to destroy her- inside I felt like someone is constantly beating me. I promised myself then, that I would not do the return 1000 nautical miles passage. I will take the airplane when the time comes to go back to the tropics, after the cyclone season is well over, in May.

The time came. It’s the end of May- the New Zealand winter approaching with its cold rains and fogs. Most of the boats have already left. Our friends aboard catamarans Mercredi Soir and Invictus are already in Fiji, enjoying the tropical sun, waiting for us. We got delayed waiting for the new sails to arrive from South Africa and a diving compressor from Germany. We had to paint the hulls again before leaving, to install the wind vane, fix the toilets and do everything that needed to be done.

Six months have passed quickly, mostly spent on land, with friends, celebrating holydays and regular days, driving around North Island, visiting beautiful mountains, beaches and forests, working on the boat. By May, the bad waves have become a memory and I make a deal with Ivo.

  • I will do the return passage again aboard Fata if we stop at Minerva, some 360 NM before Fiji.

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The sun moves higher in the sky and its magical autumn warmth melts the fog away. Our familiar bay slowly reveals itself like a photograph in a darkroom- first the nearest grey rocks pop up from the sea, then the green shores take shape in the distance and grow bigger and bigger, until we can see the soft oval dome of the last hill with its lonely white lighthouse standing guard at the mouth of The Bay of Islands. Soon the air is clear and crisp again, the sky is blue, the world is no longer narrow and obscure. We can now get a last glimpse of New Zealand, of solid red-and-green land, before a week of nothing but blue desert and birdless skies.

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We are staring back at the shrinking land behind us, bouncing rhythmically on the slow big ocean swell. The shores, which have just appeared from the fog, are now disappearing in the distance once again, and for good.

We are preparing mentally for the utter loneliness of being in the middle of an ocean on a tiny sailboat for a week at least- like astronauts in space, maybe even lonelier. At least the astronauts can look back at Earth and have this one fixed point in space guiding their return. We are sailing towards nowhere.

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A small white triangle pops up from the entrance of the bay right behind us, then another and another! On the AIS we count at least 15 more sailboats, all heading in our direction! Soon we are surrounded by yachts, their captains chatting on the VHF radio, discussing the wind and the waves, their speed and sail combination, the weather forecast, their planned routs towards Fiji or Tonga with a stopover at Minerva Reefs! All morning and into the early afternoon, more and more sailboats leave Opua for Minerva Reefs as part of the Opua-Tonga-Fiji rally, which apparently, we have spontaneously joined. We will not be lonely at least for the next few hours before everyone disappears behind the horizon. The marathon runners, all clustered at the start, will eventually scatter, the distance between them increasing every minute, as the faster ones run ahead for the finish line.

Sails are adjusted, the race begins. In the ocean, it’s a slow but long marathon, with most boats doing 5 to 6 knots in 10 knot winds from southeast. Yet, a few of the yachts have the same speed like Fata and remain close for the rest of the day, the first night, the next day, the second night and even after three days and night we can still see them on the AIS within a few nautical miles from us! One is a Leopard catamaran, slightly bigger than ours, with no AIS. These guys keep us really vigilant the first couple of nights with their little white, green and red lights coming within a few meters form ours.

The weather forecast looks good, with no storms and very light winds predicted for the next five days. Light winds are OK; storms are unwelcome.

  • You want light winds?- the Ocean asked with a sly smile. The Ocean loves to play tricks on you, so you must be careful what you wish for… Light winds it is.

The second morning of the passage we wake up with wind 6 to 8 knots right behind us, Fata barely moving. Our friends have already pulled up their spinnakers. We do the same and we help with the starboard engine. By morning three, the wind has died completely and all boats from the rally, with all sails neatly folded and all masts sticking in the air like devastated bare tree trunks, turn their motors on. The winner of the race will not be the fastest sailing yacht with the most skillful skipper, but the yacht with the most powerful engine and the largest fuel tanks.

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We have experienced deadcalms before- beautiful and eerie announcers of storms, but they usually last for a few hours only, especially at these unusual latitudes. This time, we witness the Ultimate Deadcalm lasting four days and nights with not even the slightest puff of wind, in a place notorious for Tasman storms and mean weather systems.

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On the third morning of our passage, the slow sunrise reveals an endless purple mirror separating the sky above from the sky below- Fata Morgana suspended in the middle- stuck to her inverted image like an unusual optical illusion, a bizarre phantasmagoria. The ocean as we know it is no more. In its place is an endless sky. We are sailing on clouds.

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I am lying in my bed unable to move. The pain is unbearable, sharp and constant, stretching from the right side of my lower back all the way down my right leg to the tips of my toes. As if a cord running inside my body has snapped, leaving me paralyzed and suffering. Later, I found out that I have pinched a nerve in my lower back as a result of a simple innocent sneeze. But before the professional diagnose, I have no idea what is going on, and why, and what to do?

I can’t move, I can’t sleep and I can’t even change my position. I can only lie on my back, but even on my back the pain is terrible. After two childbirths and a few rotten teeth throughout the years, I am now experiencing the worst pain of my life, in the middle of the sea. Usually I sleep curled up on one side, so lying on my back for hours in constant pain is killing me. Not knowing what is happening and how long it will continue is not helping my situation. I am dying. Slowly and hopelessly, with no hospital around the corner, I am dying, killed by a sneeze.

Call a helicopter to come and pick me up, bring me back in New Zealand, and save me! Can’t call a helicopter- we are outside of helicopter reach, no phones here, too far out at sea. All I can do is take painkillers and anti-inflammatories- even antibiotics- whatever pills I can find on the boat. How long can a person survive without sleep, unable to move, in constant sharp pain? If I survive, will I ever be able to walk again? I don’t believe in God and I don’t usually pray, but now I am praying and promising (mainly myself), that if I survive and if I ever walk normally again, I will exercise regularly and run, build some muscles, do yoga and make sure I become fit and stay fit, I promise! I hope- I pray- it’s not too late. We people tend to realize the benefits of healthy eating and physical exercise once it’s too late.

After a couple of days of incredible pain and a bag of pills, I think I am feeling a bit better. The ocean has been kind to me this time- something I will forever be grateful for. No waves to thrash me up and down in my quiet suffering. I survive only thanks to this unusual calm, day after day after day. It is also easier for Ivo, who is now left to sail the boat alone with Maya’s help day and night, for there is not much to do- no sail adjustment, no stress- the autopilot and engines are doing all the work.

On the third day of my painful situation- the fifth day of the passage- the pain has become more bearable or I have become more used to it. I can now carefully and slowly move around. I can sleep on my side, stand up and go to the toilet with no help. I can roll out of bed and go up in the cockpit. I cannot bend my body in a sitting position but lying on the floor of the boat is now possible, so I can get out of the cabin for a change..

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I can now go out, slowly and carefully, and admire the strange world around us- empty and utterly still. The sea is a frozen mountain lake with no mountains around it to give it shape. The clouds, reflected on the glossy surface, catch the afternoon light and spill it above and below us in perfect symmetry.

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A school of mahi-mahis follows the boat for a while. They come close and we can see their green-and-blue backs with the sharpest detail, like fish in an endless aquarium. Ivo pulls out two – fresh food for the next few days.

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Night. Fata Morgana is flying through a silent alien universe with double the stars- bright, heavy, insane- leaving a trail of green liquid fire. Delicate creatures, some like miniature luminescent snowflakes, others like large underwater glass flowers, become alive with tiny flickering explosions, revealing only the contours of their invisible shapes for a brief moment. And disappear in the liquid black of the night sea.

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On the sixth day, the south winds return. We are sailing again. The propellers of our boat are not very big and we never run the engines at maximum RPM in order to conserve fuel, so our normal speed under power in the last five days has been about 6 knots, making progress of about 130 NM in a straight line towards destination. Most of the other boat who left Opua with us are pushing a bit harder and will arrive in Minerva sooner.

The Minerva Reefs are two submerged atolls in the middle of nowhere some 25 nautical miles apart- South and North Minerva. No islands here, no dry land- just a couple of reefs forming shallow blue lagoons each three miles across. Their jugged coral rocks sticking above the sea at low tide are completely submerged at high tide making the anchorage one of the strangest in the world- you are sitting at anchor in 5-10 meters of sand surrounded by nothing but ocean in all directions, protected from waves in most weather conditions. No one lives here, there are no permanent residents, as there is no land at all. The nearest island is three more days sail form here.

On the seventh afternoon of our passage we begin hearing the other boats on the VHF radio discussing the entrance through the pass of the lagoon, GPS positions, red wine and lobsters. But we are late and we’ll have to spend another night outside waiting in the lee of the reef, as entering through the cut and navigating inside the lagoon is only safe in good daylight.

It’s a black moonless night as we approach South Minerva Reef. In the distance, it looks like a small city with the flickering lights of at least 20 boats, all tucked safely inside the lagoon. An ocean oasis. We finally got wind after a windless week, but now we have to stop and wait. We heave-to outside the reef making sure we drift away from the rocks and not towards them. We keep watch the rest of the night, as boats keep arriving in the darkness, some heading towards Tonga without stopping.

The next morning, we sail through the cut- wide and straightforward- inside North Minerva Reef. Inside the lagoon, we dodge a few coral heads and drop anchor in 5 meters of water- beautiful teal-colored liquid glass. Everything about this place looks familiar, after spending a few days in Beveridge Reef last year: the lagoon, the reef with its breakers, even the color of the water inside the lagoon are the same as in Beveridge Reef. Minerva Reef, like Beveridge Reef, is a coral atoll with limestone base elevated by volcanic activity. Yet, this is another place, and a very special one- Minerva Reef has a unique story.

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The reefs were named after the Australian whaler Minerva in 1829- one of many ships wrecked on the treacherous rocks hidden beneath the waves, invisible at night. Until 1972 the reefs were mainly visited by passing ships, private yachts and local fishermen from Tonga and Fiji. Until one day a millionaire and political activist Michael Oliver from Las Vegas had an idea. He set off to create a brand new sovereign micronation with “no taxation, welfare, subsidies, or any form of economic interventionism.” Oliver formed the Ocean Life Research Foundation, a syndicate which allegedly had some $100,000,000 for the project with offices in New York City and London, and in 1971 the building of the new nation begun. Barges loaded with sand arrived from Australia to bring the reef level above the water and create artificial islands. Next, a small tower was erected and the flag of The Republic of Minerva was raised. On 19 January 1972 The Republic issued a declaration of independence in letters to neighboring countries and even created their own currency and had their first president elected. Probably by a majority.

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However, the declaration of independence was greeted with great suspicion by all other countries in the area- Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, and theCook Islands. Tonga claimed the two Minerva Reefs as traditional fishing grounds belonging to the Kingdom since forever, and the rest of the neighboring states quickly recognized the claim.

Flag of Republic of Minerva

Here is the Proclamation published in a Tongan government gazette on 15 June 1972:

“His Majesty King Taufaʻahau Tupou IV in Council DOES HEREBY PROCLAIM:

WHEREAS the Reefs known as North Minerva Reef and South Minerva Reef have long served as fishing grounds for the Tongan people and have long been regarded as belonging to the Kingdom of Tonga has now created on these Reefs islands known as Teleki Tokelau and Teleki Tonga; AND WHEREAS it is expedient that we should now confirm the rights of the Kingdom of Tonga to these islands; THEREFORE we do hereby AFFIRM and PROCLAIM that the islands, rocks, reefs, foreshores and waters lying within a radius of twelve miles [19.31 km] thereof are part of our Kingdom of Tonga.”

Shortly after that, a Tongan expedition was sent to the reefs and occupied the new Republic by taking down the Republic’s flag and hoisting the Tongan flag in its place, with no objection from the local residents- the lobsters and the giant clams inhabiting the rocky parts of the reefs. The Owner of the Republic quickly fired the newly elected president in order to avoid any armed confrontation- “the libertarians who were involved did not want to fight for their territory.”

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Ten years later, a guy named Morris C. “Bud” Davis led a group of Americans to occupy the reefs once again. This occupation lasted for three entire weeks, after which the Tongan troops arrived and kicked everyone out. A few times after that various groups and individuals have tried to claim the reefs, including us, but each time Minerva has been “more or less reclaimed by the sea”.

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In 2005, Fiji claimed the waters around the Minerva Reefs as being their fishing grounds, not Tonga’s, and lodged a complaint with the International Seabed Authority concerning Tonga’s maritime waters claims surrounding Minerva. In turn, Tonga lodged a counter claim. The Principality of Minerva micronation joined in and claimed to have lodged a counter claim as well!

In 2010 Fiji sent Navy ships to destroy the navigation lights installed by Tongans at the entrance to the lagoon. The next year, they did it again! Two Royal Tongan Navy ships were sent to the reef to replace the equipment yet again, and thus to reassert Tonga’s claim to the territory. There were Fijian Navy ships already in the vicinity but as soon as the Tongans approached, they withdrew.

In 2014, the government of Tonga decided to propose to generously give the Minerva Reefs to Fiji and thus end the territorial dispute. In exchange, Fiji would have to surrender the Lau Group of islands. Two small reefs in exchange for sixty islands, of which thirty inhabited! Tonga’s Lands Minister Lord Maʻafu Tukuiʻaulahi announced that he would make the proposal to Fiji’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, because some Tongans have Lauan ancestors and many Lauans have Tongan ancestors, so it’s only fair!

Today, the reefs are still officially part of Tonga, with no navigational lights at the moment. And the Lau Group of islands belongs to Fiji.

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There are six other boats in North Minerva together with us. All the others- twenty or more- are in the South reef, which is the first one to reach when sailing from New Zealand. No Navi ships from Tonga or Fiji are here today.

Two guys are talking on the radio discussing the local lobsters, famous for their size and sheer quantities. One is saying, that too many boats are visiting the reefs lately and right now everyone from the rally is trying to catch as many lobsters as possible and stuff them in their freezers. Consequently, the lobsters are fished out. We see people patrolling the rocks at low tide, walking with their heads down, carrying big backpacks for lobster-collecting purposes. Sadly, because of the lobsters’ popularity, the Tongan, Fijian and Chinese fishermen and the greed of the boaties, whose numbers increase each year, the once abundant giant lobsters in Minerva Reefs are now almost extinct, so we don’t even try.

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Fata Morgana is at rest, the engines finally shut off, the fuel tanks almost empty. We wash the salt off the boat, cook and sleep. Then it’s time to explore. We take the kayak and paddle towards the small tower on the western part of the reef. The kayak ride is not easy for me, as my lower back and right leg still hurt and my movements are very limited. Sitting is painful. But I feel better. The pain is no longer as sharp and as strong as initially and I am able to walk slowly around the reef.

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It’s mid-tide, the water is coming in like a river flowing from the ocean over the rocks, at some places deep to our knees. Purple, green and blue giant clams bloom at our feet, quickly closing their shells when approached, vigilant and shy. There is no trace of any land here, or sandy islands, let alone a Republic with a president. The only memory of humans ever been here is the broken metal tower sticking about three meters in the air, and the shipwrecks on the fringes of the lagoon.  The air is pleasant, much warmer than 800 Nautical miles south in New Zealand. We are back in the tropics. Tomorrow, we will sail again, heading northwest, another 360 nautical miles to Fiji.

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Watch our YouTube video SAILING FROM NEW ZEALAND TO MINERVA with twenty boats, zero wind, two mahis and a squid.

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