Minerva Reef greeted us with glittering, sparkling calm seas. We arrived at the reef pass after a day and a half crossing from Tonga, mellow except for the drama filled killing of a hitchhiking venomous centipede named Ted.
Minerva Reef is a remote place and famous among cruisers. It is a three mile diameter coral reef in the middle of the ocean, disappears at high tide under the sea and you can anchor on it. You can anchor in the middle of the sea. The first time I heard about this place was a year ago, I met SV Migration on an airport shuttle in Baja and they told me they had their wedding at Minerva Reef. They celebrated with reef lobster and invited all the cruisers who happened to be there too. They waited for low tide.
With two new crew, a boat full of provisions (including an uninvited venomous centipede named Ted) and fair winds we sailed on from the Va’vau island group of Tonga southward to the Ha’apai group.
A few hours into the sail, our bright pink spinnaker ripped top to bottom and fell into the sea. I looked at Eric and asked urgently yet calmly “What are we going to do?” He replied, “I don’t know yet.” He hopped up on the foredeck to assess the situation, and Abby and Lauren asked “is this normal?” They didn’t have blue water sailing experience, but are savvy in other fields and are quick learners. “No, this isn’t normal but we will be fine,” I assured them, remembering how often spinnakers ripped during races and folks were usually ok. Luckily, the sail fell in a way that wasn’t too hard to wrangle back on board with all four of us heaving. I was impressed and relieved to see how well the crew handled the situation, it was our first test as a team and we excelled.
There is a wide, old mellowness to Vava’u, Tonga. An ancient peace. Yawning cave mouths dot the cliff edges, breathing the sea in and out, swallows dart and dip into the dark entrances to their cozy homes clinging to the eroded rock caverns. Fat fuzzy fruit bats fly contentedly through the sky, during the day, afternoon and night. Lush tropical flora is so thickly knitted together that you can’t see any way through. Vines fill in the space between pandanus trees, iron wood trees, and so many other plants that I’ve never seen before. White tropical birds with their elegant long thin tails lilt over the calm seas.
The Vava’u group is shaped like a jellyfish, with main town of Neiafu tucked inside the northern part, the jellyfish body. The Port of Refuge is completely that, nestled against Neiafu and protected on all sides from the open sea winds and currents.
We arrived to port with a 10 foot long Pacific Blue marlin newly processed and filling up our two freezers. It’s regal bill and flashy tail cut free from the shimmering blue silver body, ready to dry and be a physical reminder of the great beast. We caught it on a hand line, Eric wrapped the line around a winch and I winched it in. By the time it reached the boat, it had dragged at 11 knots forcing blood through its gills, so it didn’t have any fight left. It was a wild honor to be near the majestic beast and it’s silky, clean flesh fed us and many others for months.
We set sail from Raiatea after provisioning at the supermarket with stinky French cheese, frozen wakame salad for poke bowls and bags of frozen meat gifts for friends. Morgan and Eric met gregarious Hio in Raiatea who invited them to visit his home island, the outer French Polynesian atoll Maupihaa, where his parents and sisters live. He suggested we bring them frozen meat since the supply ship only stops in Maupihaa every eight months or so. We checked out with the gendarme (customs) in Raiatea, and I felt relieved. I’d spent exactly 90 days in the country, the limit for US citizens. Technically, we would still be in French Polynesia in Maupihaa, but it is so remote that the gendarme rarely monitors the area.
After a few days of mellow sailing, we entered the atoll’s narrow pass and anchored inside the protected lagoon near a beachside thatched lean-to. It was tranquil inside the lagoon, one half of our view was palm trees and white sand beaches, the other half showcased waves crashing on the outer reef like a Las Vegas fountain show. There were only two other sailboats anchored near us so it was quiet. Just the breeze, bird calls and at night the sparkly stars.
French customs officers checked my passport in Papeete International Airport and eyed me curiously. My entry stamp was from Nuku Hiva, a Marquesan island, from almost three months prior, indicating I was not your average tourist. “You only have three days left on your visa,” the hunky tattooed officer informed me, “Yes, I know.” “Are you planning on coming back to French Polynesia anytime soon?” he inquired, “Yes, in a few weeks, I am sailing from here onwards to Tonga and New Zealand, with friends” I responded, calmly. After a few more questions he let me leave French Polynesia to board my flight to Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Island group.
I gazed at Moorea outside the Air Tahiti airplane window. She looked surreal, an imagined paradise, her peaks jutted skyward like water jumping up in spires when you place an extra strong bass speaker nearby. Deep emerald green ringed with white sand, luminous turquoise shallow water and crashing waves on the outer reef, all surrounded by endless sea, in all directions, dimpled like a hammered copper pot.
It was surreal speaking English with peers from the US again. Eric and Morgan of SV Zephyr, a 55’ Outremer performance catamaran, welcomed me aboard with open arms and lots of good food. I first met the young couple when we were resting in La Paz, Baja Mexico after the Baja Ha-Ha rally. We were a few of the handful of younger sailors in the 150 boat race. We met up later in La Cruz, north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico when we were getting ready to cross the Pacific. They invited me to help race Zephyr in a four day regatta, which we won! We had a ton of fun racing together, it was my first time on a large catamaran, it was an incredibly smooth ride even at high speeds and didn’t heel to one side like monohull sailboats do. I’d already committed to crossing the Pacific with SV Rapture, so Eric and Morgan said I could join them later in French Polynesia, if I wanted to, and continue on with them to New Zealand.
The rainbow boat felt like a music box without her ballerinas. We’d just returned to the Carenage shipyard after dropping off the boat’s owners and crew, the four French doctors, at the Arutua airport. So now I was captain of this ship. I climbed up the 12 foot tall ladder to my new home, a rainbow painted black steel sailboat resting on stilts in a remote atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
There was space to lay down now in the small cockpit, without the four beautiful guys lounging about, smoking cigarettes and joking. I tucked a pillow behind my back and stared out at my new backyard—a coconut grove and pond. Thankfully, Tahai came by after sunset and extended Tony’s invitation to join them for family dinner. My heavy ennui was softened by the tiny Carenage community’s kindness.
Tony’s grandparents and parents live in humble, airy, brightly painted homes along the waterfront next to the shipyard. Tahai and Tamatoa, the two young Carenage workers from other atolls, live above the big shared kitchen near the small office set back from the sea. A coral gravel path connects all the homes, office, kitchen and shipyard—everything is tidy, beautiful tropical plants are well cared for, the coconut copra drying area is organized.
The first time I saw the vintage black steel sailboat with a rainbow painted on its side and strange flags flying from the shrouds, it was overflowing with young, handsome, bearded men in Atuona Harbor on Hiva Oa island in the Marquesas, French Polynesia.
I’d just sailed on Rapture from the northern Marquesas, Nuku Hiva and Ua Pou and we anchored in the jam packed harbor next to this mysterious vessel. I tried not to stare, but I hadn’t been around people my age for over a month, let alone potential romantic interests, so I didn’t let my pride keep me from casual ogling.
Even without the male eye candy, the small ship turned heads. She was custom built, I came to find out later, by a French man in 1979 to sail around the world with his family. Her lines stayed true to that era with an angled transom that rose above the waterline and a 45 degree bow with thick black pipe railings fortifying the bowsprit area. She evoked the Pink Floyd rainbow prism album cover, with a thick white painted band below the toe rail that enveloped rectangular portholes covered in protective plastic, silver bolts ringing each one like punk bracelets. Rust dripped across the white band and the rainbow’s lines were weathered.
A handmade looking metal support structure perched above the tiny stern held up solar panels and doubled as a storage area for a large crab pot, natural gas cans, buoys and buckets, all covered in a tarp secured with zig zagging bungee cords. Surf boards lived along one stern rail and poked out of their repurposed sleeping bag covers. A clear blue plastic observation bubble hatch cover behind the cockpit area added to Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic movie vibes.
We sailed back out the north pass and around Apataki to the south pass, looking for Lucio’s wave. We saw waves breaking outside the south pass, but they weren’t quite big enough yet. Teresia continued 10 miles past the main village of Niutahi to Totoro where the Apataki Carenage shipyard is located.
It looked improbable, a dozen masts poking out above the coconut tree line, with a few buildings tucked near the beach and a tractor lined up on a concrete ramp into the sea. We anchored nearby and hoped to refill our gasoline, propane and find some WiFi at this remote outpost.
In the morning we met Tony, the man in charge at the Carenage. He was business like and organized, in his late 20s, with a black pearl hanging from a small gold hoop earring in one ear. Gasoline, propane, WiFi. Check, check, check.
We left Fatu Hiva and headed for Apataki, an atoll in the Tuamotu islands. Lucio heard there was going to be good surf in a few days there and his whole trip was geared toward finding that wave.
As we left the Marquesas, an almost full coconut white moon dripped coconut cream moonbeams onto tuna jumping through indigo black waves.
The passage slowly rolled along. We entered daily routines of eating pamplemousse together, where everyone took a slice then turned outwards to eat the extra juicy fruit over the side of the boat. In silence, content. We caught a bonito, Alex and I played chess. We journaled, I colored. The guys baked bread on the stovetop. We broke down fresh coconuts to make coconut rice.