Apologies for this long-overdue post! Since returning to California in early July, I’ve been busy working as a Sailing Instructor; it’s peak sailing season, so my work schedule is full!
But let’s back up to early June…
I had flown down to New Zealand to help friends Tom and Di sail their boat to Fiji once again. This would be my 6th voyage aboard the sailing vessel Avalon.
As usual, before beginning the 1,200-mile trip across the South Pacific Ocean, we ran into a bit of a waiting game.
The boat was ready. We were ready. But the weather just wasn’t cooperating.
Mother Nature had unleashed heavy wind, fierce rain, and stormy seas, so we chose to settle into an Airbnb for a week. We ventured out daily to check on the boat and do last-minute boat jobs – final fresh food provisioning, topping of water and fuel, etc. One day we took a “day off” and drove across the North Island to Baylys Beach to experience the wild west coast!
As the weather settled down, on June 13 we sipped a final flat white coffee at Land & Sea Café, cast off the dock lines, and set our course north for Fiji – avoiding a large commercial ship or two as we headed out from Marsden Cove Marina, down the channel, and out to sea.
Squalls (intense, localized storms) are a part of ocean sailing. We usually encounter them later in the voyage, as we approach the warmer climate of Fiji. But on this voyage, the squalls came almost immediately.
For two nights, we hunkered down in the cockpit running away from squalls that were lined up like a freight train of dark clouds. Dressed in full foul-weather gear and PFDs, and clipped to the boat via our tethers, Tom and I alternated driving at the helm and sleeping on the floor of the cockpit through the night. Periodically, we’d go below to check the radar, which helped us measure the intensity of each approaching squall. (Di was under the weather for the first few days, so she rested in the cabin while Tom and I split these night watches.)
Fortunately, we were able to avoid or outrun most of the squalls, and the ones that hit us were not as violent as they can be. We were very lucky for sure.
We then enjoyed a few days of great sailing, with 15-20 knot winds on or just behind the beam, and a few nights of a bright, full moon and mesmerizing Milky Way.
The miles drifted by, and soon, we’d sailed over 800 miles north of New Zealand. We had about 400 miles to go, and then we decided to drop the anchor.
Yes. We dropped the anchor in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, nearly 400 miles from any kind of land or civilization.
There is a place on the cruising route known as Minerva Reef, which is actually comprised of two circular reefs, North Minerva Reef and South Minerva Reef. You can read about these atolls here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minerva_Reefs
It’s an amazing place, known by only a small number of people, and visited by even a smaller number of people. There is no land. In fact, the atolls are completely submerged at high tide. The only way to get there is by boat. Small boat. The donut-shaped reefs are each about 3 miles in diameter. The North Minerva Reef has a navigable entrance about 400 feet wide. The water goes from 2,000 feet deep outside to 30 feet deep inside.
It’s an incredible geological formation – and one of the most amazing and unique places I’ve ever been even though it’s sort of “invisible”.
We’ve known about this place for years, and was a bucket list item for Tom and Di, and for me as soon as they had told me about it on one of our first passages.
On the particular day we arrived, we could see the white water of the waves crashing on the reef. We sailed around clockwise to find the narrow entrance, and slowly made our approach. Once inside the protection of the reef, the water became glass – the ocean swells and wind waves were flattened by the reef. We could still feel the light ocean breeze (since there was no land to shield us).
We gently glided through the clear blue water. As the water became shallower and shallower, we prepared the anchor and looked for a sandy bottom where we could drop, so as to avoid the bommies (coral heads). Getting our anchor stuck out here could be disastrous.
Patience paid off. We circled the lagoon, found a good spot, and lowered the anchor. Once we set the anchor and tidied the boat, we took a refreshing and cleansing swim. We looked forward to a night or two of sound sleep, good meals, relaxation… and flat surfaces. (When we’re sailing in the ocean, we live at a 15-20 degree heeling angle, with a lot of bouncing around.)
As remote a location as Minerva Reef is, there were 2-3 other cruising boats in the lagoon with us. We enjoyed listening to their chatter on the VHF radio. They were coordinating snorkeling adventures, lobster hunting, and “walks on the beach” (meaning at low tide they’d take the dinghy over to the reef’s edge and walk along the reef and tide pools). This seemed silly to us – probably an ecological no-no (if not literally illegal), but also just stupid. What if someone cuts their foot on the coral? What if the dinghy punctures? We are 400 miles away from anywhere!
We took our swim (with a safety line drifting back from the boat with knots as handholds), but other than that, we stayed on the boat and left our dinghy on board.
We did cook some serious cheeseburgers though, loaded with guacamole and the thickest cheese slices I’ve ever seen on a burger. We had a good laugh about it as we devoured the delicacy.
The wind picked up on our second day at Minerva Reef. Remember, the reef offered great protection from the ocean swells, but not from the wind (since there is no prominent land mass). We opted not to swim that day and instead focused ourselves on boat jobs. After all, we still had 400 miles to sail across the open ocean; we couldn’t relax just yet!
We spent a good part of the day refueling the main fuel tanks, emptying the Gerry cans that we carry in the forward and aft lockers. I did some laundry and re-organized my gear, as I’m known to do several times a week.
After a second full night of sleep, we departed for Fiji. We carefully navigated through the entrance (well, now the exit), and turned north to Fiji.
During one of my night watches, I spotted a set of unknown lights which I believed to be a fishing vessel (perhaps similar to the Japanese fishing vessels that we’d encountered, and detoured around, on one of our previous passages). I woke Tom and we assessed the situation, choosing to proceed with a watchful eye. Fortunately, it worked out and we sailed by at a distance.
Another night I enjoyed watching a cruise ship sail across our stern (several miles away, don’t worry). It was lit up like a Christmas tree. Sitting alone in the cockpit, quietly sailing along in the dark, I wondered what sort of festivities were going on aboard the cruise ship.
Our destination and port-of-entry this year was Savusavu on Vanua Levu. In previous years, we have checked into either Port Denerau or Vuda, both on Viti Levu. I was happy to see a different port, let alone a different island of Fiji.
We approached the island of Vanua Levu just after sunset, however. It was too dark to make the approach into the unknown port of Savusavu, surrounded by reefs, shallows, and traffic. We “held off” through the night, intending to make our approach in the morning. As we waited, other familiar cruising boats joined our holding pattern. We engaged in a bit of chatter on the VHF radio as we welcomed each other.
By mid-morning of Monday, June 24, we made our approach into the Coprashed Marina in Savusavu, executing a difficult med-mooring procedure (lowering the anchor as we back stern-to into the slip) without a problem! We checked in with the usual cast of governmental characters – Customs, Immigration, Biosecurity, etc. and then finally tidied up the boat, cracked a few beers, and relaxed!
As usual, I checked into a hotel off the boat so I could get proper rest, shower, laundry, etc. The Hot Springs Hotel was my hotel of choice, and it was very nice, offering great views of the bay and marina, good WIFI, and a nice balcony. One day, I took a walk down to the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort – a super high end resort – and they were nice enough to let me in to enjoy a Mai Tai.
After a few days assisting with post-passage boat jobs (cleaning, refueling, etc.) I then went further with my self-spoiling and spent 3 nights at the Koro Sun Resort and Spa, a short cab-ride around the island.
Savusavu is a nice little town. The highlight for me was the Grace Road Kitchen and Snowy House Café. Run by a Korean family, these two adjacent eateries were clean and friendly, offering tasty Korean dishes, coffee, and desserts.
On July 3, I took a small puddle-jumper of an airplane from Savusavu, Vanua Levu to Nadi, Viti Levu. I stayed a few nights at the Ramada Inn, enjoying a few beach-side beers and sunsets at Travellers, which brought back fond memories of previous passages with SV Avalon. (I was also happy to discover that Grace Road Kitchen has a restaurant in Nadi, too!).
On Saturday, July 6, I boarded my flight home to San Francisco, grateful and honored to have been part of another sailing adventure aboard SV Avalon.
Thanks to Tom and Di for including me … and for letting me reorganize my bags, for taking funny flying fish pictures, for introducing me to new music, for trying the DB Cafe menu, for helping me find WIFI, for keeping the cleanest bilge (and boat) ever, for *always* putting safety first, and for trusting me to help sail your boat!