Minerva ReefReport Abuse
23 October 2004
About three days out of Tonga, on the way to New Zealand, there is a very strange bit of land, if you can even call it land, because at high-tide most of it is awash. Minerva Reef is an atoll without topsoil or vegetation. It has a pass to its interior lagoon, which is thirty feet deep and has a soft sand bottom. The reef itself is a menace to navigation. It`s in the middle of nowhere, 240 miles from any land. It`s also nearly invisible - even at low tide when three or four feet of land are exposed - because the rising and breaking surf obscures it. It has taken unknown ships over the centuries.
We ran down to a waypoint a few miles to windward, and to the side of it, early one morning. Arriving in darkness or late in the day would be bordering on suicidal. It would also be good to find the tide on the rise, to assist you motoring in, because there is a constant outflow of water from the waves that break in over on the windward side.
I stood on the cabin top with my back against the mast, scanning ahead and to the left through the breaking waves for some white that stayed constant. Finally there was an unbroken line of surf on the horizon, but how far it ran was unclear. Surf on a reef to leeward looks very different when you`re on a small approaching boat. This was no time for mistakes; we couldn't claw back against wind and sea either if we failed to make the pass.
"20 degrees port, Irene. Leave the main under-trimmed."
We came in on a good line, had lots of height, and while the outflow was a chore it wasn't insurmountable, even for the Moose`s thirty feeble horsepower.
It was eerie though, to be anchored in fairly smooth water, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with the constant thunder of surf all around you. There was a dream-like feeling, a premonition that something wasn`t quite right. We were getting something for nothing, a free lunch, and at sea that leaves an ominous unsatisfied feeling in the gut.
We had entered in company with our two American friends Ron & Suzanne who sailed on a Wharrem catamaran, Tapasya, that they`d built. The next morning at low tide Ron & I dropped the girls off on the reef with a VHF radio for some reef combing and we motored the dinghy toward the weather side of the lagoon. I was trolling a white bucktail lure and had the rod in its holder on the dinghy’s bulkhead. "Hey, we've got something!" The rod bent over sharply and line played out against the drag. Moving like a whaleboat team, Ron took the helm and I leapt forward and pulled out the rod.
We had a merry old time following the fish around and trying to get in line. We finally boated a fish I`d never seen before. It had a boxy head, large upward-placed eyes, over-sized pectoral fins, large scales and was a turquoise color. Later in NZ a charter skipper suggested that it was a Job fish. It was a well-fleshed fish, and that was a good thing, because as we were checking back to see if our wives were still ahead of the tide, we saw a mast. It was a yacht steaming toward the pass and rolling in sickening arcs, since there were no sails to provide a counter balance against the swells. It was making slow but steady progress and finally it came up into the wind at the pass, and we went back to rendezvous with the girls.
We anchored the dinghy in waist deep water near the reef and cleaned the fish. I`ve never cleaned a fish with scales before, since most pelagic hunters have a smooth skin. As I took the fillets off the carcass I managed to get a liberal battering of scales over the meat. You couldn`t see them of course because they`re translucent, but they have the gift of getting into the serving of the most finicky diner - usually a lapsed vegetarian!
Irene and Suzanne slowly wandered toward us, poking the big reef clams in tidal pools and getting squirted for their troubles. It struck me that this scene, bucolic as it was, was so tenuous. So many things could go wrong at this place so easily and their consequences could get exponential very quickly. Several decades ago a yacht from Tonga piled up on South Minerva Reef just south of here. The men got ashore through the surf, and took shelter in a wrecked Japanese trawler, but as the days drew out some died. They distilled fresh water with a homemade solar still and ate reef fare.
I’m sure you’d find some coral covered man-made shapes under water if you could snorkel the weather side of the atoll on a calm day. You’d probably also get checked out by enough reef sharks to keep your mind off anchor chains.
Back on board that afternoon the tide had come up over the reef and a line of serious surf was the only indication of land beneath. We watched these big Pacific rollers, with twenty knots wind behind them, cream in over the reef and send clumps of spume our way. It felt so strange to be sitting like a bird in a nest in this little round sanctuary in the middle of the boisterous Pacific.
The new yacht had anchored. All three boats strained against the breeze and I was reminded of the poem “The Wreck of the Ballyshannon”: Two English men were shipwrecked on a tiny atoll and spent years in silence, naturally of course, since they hadn’t been introduced; and one just doesn’t go about addressing strangers.
I remarked on the irony and Irene, who loves missions, took the dinghy over to Freya, the Danish boat (the skipper was born in Greenland, of all things) and said that we had wine and fish – could they join the four of us for dinner? Checking their agenda, they found no other engagements, and accepted.
Posted by: Duncan Gould