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.
As we entered the pass, both fishing lines zinged off the transom. Eric and Abby reeled in the fish, but a hungry shark chomped on Eric’s catch. Once onboard the fish looked to be a variety called greater amberjack and weighed in around 20 pounds each. Since we didn’t know ciguatera information for this area we threw the fish back to the sharks.
We anchored near one other boat a few miles opposite the pass. Right where the deep cobalt becalmed inner sea transitioned to dreamy postcard turquoise. Sun sparkles lit mellow wind ripples. The boat was still, with the exposed reef protecting us from thousands of miles of open ocean, my face muscles relaxed. We all appreciated the new quiet and stillness after a noisy, fast passage.
Eric checked the weather, we’d only be able to spend 24 hours here. We had a couple of days of northeast winds to power us towards New Zealand before a front rolled in with southwest winds. Southwest winds are the opposite of what we wanted, so we decided to make the most of our time in Minerva before we had to set sail.
First up, wakeboarding! Eric wasn’t sure the dinghy engine would be powerful enough to pull someone out of the water but we were all game to try. Even though Abby said she saw a large shark cruise by the boat, we still wanted to go for it. Eric dug out a wakeboard from his locker full of tricks and I hopped in the warm water. I’d wakeboarded a bit when I was a kid at lakes in the desert. After a few tries, I popped up out of the water and did a couple laps around Zephyr. Lauren and Abby got up too, we all cheered each other on.
Finally, Eric wanted to try. He is heavier than us, even when I had the engine at full throttle, it wasn’t powerful enough to get him out of the water. He is tenacious though, and strong, so after I dragged him through the water for what felt like a long time, he managed to pop up. Once up, the engine was fine, and I swooped around the other boats, the dinghy felt like it wanted to flip going around the turns. But it was fun to drive, to be a bit reckless for entertainment’s sake.
We all piled in the dinghy to go for a dive outside the reef pass. Friends had told us it was beautiful and we didn’t want to miss it. It felt unsettling going outside the pass and slipping into open ocean. Luckily, the conditions were mild, swells occasionally pushed over the reef top and broke past where we anchored the dinghy.
Abby and I stuck together, we both felt the sharky vibes in this spot. We swam around a protected sandy bottom pool and saw giant turquoise parrotfish, twice as large as the ones we are used to seeing. We ventured through coral canyons out toward the reef edge where it disappears into open ocean. Dinner plate sized yellow and blue striped angelfish, normally palm sized, swam past us. We looked at each other with big surprised eyes. What was this place ?? Jurassic Park?
Lauren pointed out a turtle and a frilly topped sea cucumber that looked like a flamenco dancer. She is graceful underwater, her lithe frame elongated with long free diving fins. Her purple blue scale printed wetsuit and ease transforms her into a real mermaid. Eric found giant lobsters clustered into coral crevices, he and Abby said they’d return later to spear them for dinner.
We got back in the dinghy and motored over to the pass, we wanted to do a drift dive and float along with the dinghy above the coral. As soon as I slipped into the water I saw three grey reef sharks nearby, eerily suspended in the glass-like water with eyes trained on me. They must have sensed my fear because after three seconds they darted toward us.
I heaved myself back into the dinghy and in canon the others piled in too. We were a mass of jumbled wetsuits, GoPros, snorkels and fins. The others are more comfortable than I am with sharks in the water, but they knew that when sharks move aggressively it is time to get out.
Back on Zephyr, Abby and Eric grabbed their spearguns and headed out to the reef for lobster. Lauren and I took advantage of being at anchor and worked out on the stable hulls.
As the golden hour began, we saw the OCTender buzzing back to her mothership. Eric and Abby were giddy—all giant, toothy smiles. Abby held up a massive lobster, easily the size of her torso. It’s spiky shell was painted with psychedelic ripples in blues, pinks, reds and purples. Eric held up a mesh bag of hearty sized specimens. Turns out, it was easy for them to spear the lobsters. There were tons clustered into the rock. I took photos of Abby, glowing with her catch, she giggled that she was proud of getting the biggest one.
We set about preparing a grilled lobster feast complete with melted garlic butter and Asian noodle bowls. The reef lobster was of course the best we’d ever had. Eric brought in round after round of grilled succulent sweet flesh. After an action packed day, I lounged along the settee, lazily dipping hot lobster into butter with one hand while the other hand supported my content, heavy head.
With our weather window narrowing, we left Minerva Reef in the morning after sharing the forecast with other sailors in the anchorage. They were all on monohulls which meant they wouldn’t be fast enough to leave during this window, they would have to wait for the next one. It’s a bit wild because you are sitting in the middle of the ocean, waiting. At least they had access to an infinite supply of lobster.
We all wished we could stay longer to enjoy this magical place, but were grateful for the perfect weather we’d had at anchor in Minerva. We hoisted the mainsail and unfurled the code zero foresail, it was time to sail as fast as we could.
A few hours after leaving the pass, one of the hand line trolling lures zinged. Abby and Eric worked together to pull in a large mahi. Once on deck, we admired its golden flanks. Mahi have exquisite color, pulsing with life, but the color fades immediately when they die. While Abby held down the large fish in its death throes, Eric noticed that the code zero wasn’t flying correctly and went to check out the problem. I helped Abby get the mahi inside the cockpit where it would be safer to fillet the slippery fish.
Turns out the bowsprit failed. The dynema harness chafed through. We all went on the foredeck to bring down the foresail and stuff it into the sail locker. I felt stressed because I wasn’t sure how this breakage would affect our forward progress in this tight weather window. And I was nervous about Eric fixing an outer part of the boat in choppy seas. Eric set about making a new dynema bowsprit support in his calm manner. He keeps heaps of dynema aboard in different weights.
After a few hours, the new support was ready for install. The seas and sky turned from sunny blue to grey. He decided to install the new bowsprit from the dinghy. So we pulled him along the outer hull with a rope, like taking a kid for a ride in their wagon we joked—trying to lighten the mood for a dangerous moment.
One of us held the rope while Eric looped dynema through metal eyes on the front inner part of each hull. The dinghy pitched and heaved, we warned him if we saw a big wave coming so he could duck down inside the dinghy to avoid any part of his body being crushed between the dinghy and Zephyr. 30 minutes felt like hours. I felt stressed but didn’t say anything beyond what was required. Abby and Lauren were doing well, staying calm. Even when we heard a crunch as Eric’s arm got smushed.
He said he was fine, and after a few minutes he finished the install. I knew we weren’t ok until he was back on the boat, my breathing remained shallow. Eric hooked the dinghy back to its harness and as he was climbing back aboard he slipped. I cried out. Luckily, he caught himself on a steel pole with one hand and heaved himself back aboard.
I could tell he had adrenaline coursing through his system, which would prevent him from feeling pain. His blue eyes were all electric fire. “Good thing it’s your left hand,” I said as I handed him a glass of water. “I’m left handed,” he replied before gulping it down. His left hand and wrist were already swollen.
That night, the seas started building and the weather became squally. We were still sailing as fast as we could, around 9 knots in 20 knots of wind. And with bigger seas this meant Zephyr bumped side to side.
Catamarans have a different motion at sea than monohulls. There are moments called “bridge slams” when a wave hits underneath the center part of the boat, right below the dining table. The top of the dining table isn’t bolted to anything so it jumps an inch into the air then slams back down onto its base. Any liquid in any cup splashes out. Anytime you are up and walking around, be ready to steady yourself when Zephyr tries to dance with you.
In the morning, after an unsettled sleep due to churning seas, I awoke to find cheery Eric pulling a pan out of the oven with his left arm in a neon orange foam brace. “Want a lobster omelette?” he asked. As if we were beginning a day in a seaside cottage on the Mediterranean coast.
“How’s your hand?” I replied, exasperated and amazed at once. “Not sure if it’s broken or not,” he said matter of factly.
The omelettes were divine, chock full of sweet lobster meat.
Lauren exclaimed that tomorrow would be Christmas. At first, I was reluctant to share in her enthusiasm. But I realized it would be a great distraction. I was feeling worn from the stress of Eric’s unknown injury, things breaking and the sea state. Christmas !
We began to plan the secret santa gift exchange, holiday snacks and music then Eric noticed a white container floating behind the boat. After a few beats he said, “That’s our life raft.”
He went up to the foredeck where the life raft is usually strapped into a metal square set flush with the starboard netting. The life raft was gone. “Let’s make this a man overboard drill!” he instructed. Which meant we would retrieve the life raft using the same system that we would use if a person fell overboard. This means someone points at the object the entire time until it is retrieved. We needed to take down the sails and turn around.
Within a half minute the life raft was far away behind us, barely visible above the waves rising and falling. We quickly put the sails away and turned around using the engines.
As we came alongside the life raft container, ready to bring it onboard, it began to auto inflate. Normally, a life raft requires a person to pull a cord for it to inflate, but this was for some reason happening on its own.
Poof poof ! The CO2 canisters inside the container deployed and inflated the $4000 neon, fully enclosed life raft equipped with rations and water inside. It’s about the size of a kiddie pool with inflated supports to make a dome over the top. It also has a sea anchor deployed, which in this case was a long weighted line that hangs below the raft to steady it at sea.
So. We could no longer easily bring aboard this inflated, weighted, awkward raft that was now being blown by the wind, pushed by the waves and dragged by current.
We were all quiet for a minute, thinking. Finally, Eric said that we couldn’t leave it at sea because it was a hazard for other boaters. We needed to sink it. Lauren said that we shouldn’t leave it as trash in the ocean, which was a good point.
“I’ll jump in the water with a knife, swim to the raft and stab it a bunch of times to deflate it, then we can drag it onboard,” said Eric.
For a second, I considered staying quiet, I don’t like to contradict any captain in intense situations because it can make things more chaotic. But in this case, I thought that was an unsafe idea. “No. Let’s tape a knife onto a gaff and stab the raft from the boat,” I countered.
He acquiesced. We duct taped a pointed knife to the end of a gaff and Abby went to the transom, a huntress ready to stab her prey. On the first pass she got in one poke, but because the raft is made of different sections, she needed to cut multiple areas for it to even begin to deflate.
On the next pass, Abby struck enough sections. Eric left the helm to help Abby pull in the raft and instructed me to reverse Zephyr to keep alongside the raft without catching the sea anchor in the propellers. I didn’t have much practice with driving dual engine boats, but Eric did a great job calmly telling me which engine to rev, while at the same hauling in the heavy raft with his one good hand.
With the once precious cargo now aboard in a tattered, soggy heap, we turned around, raised the sails and carried on.
And continued to plan fake Christmas. The seas increased overnight and we kept sailing fast, around 9 knots. I had the early morning watch, so I figured if I was up during bakers’ hours I may as well bake something. Cinnamon rolls sounded cozy. It is much easier cooking on a catamaran than a monohull in big seas because you aren’t heeling over. But the surprise shakes and quakes keep you on your toes in the galley.
Lauren woke up and started her Christmas project, fresh soft baked pretzels that she shaped into Abby’s name for her secret Santa present. I holed up in my rocking cabin to work on Lauren’s gift, an Apataki black pearl strung on dynema bracelet. Eric was using some kind of power tool in the opposite hull to make his present. Zephyr was a flurry of holiday activity. Which was good, we needed to keep our mind off the grey skies and seas to focus on fun.
This was Lauren and Abby’s first ocean passage, but it wasn’t for Eric and me. We knew that the amount of things breaking was unusual and we were starting to wear a bit ourselves. Abby and Lauren impressed me with their endurance and high morale.
I looped solar powered twinkly lights around my head. We had divine cinnamon rolls and pretzels. Eric gifted me a lovely short blade knife—he set mother of pearl into the handle and carved a sweet message into the holster. Lauren gasped with glee when she opened a shell to find the pearl bracelet inside. Abby wrote Eric a thoughtful poem full of jokes and compliments.
In the morning after fake Christmas, we awoke to sunny skies and calmer seas. The wind was still with us, 15 knots helping us make westward progress. I took this break in the weather to shower and wash and dry laundry in the sun.
We had a giant watermelon left from Va’vau, so I split it open for all to enjoy. I felt content basking in the sun, belly full of my favorite fruit and gave thanks to the sea goddesses for keeping us safe. The ocean glimmered like the world’s most precious endless enormous jewel. My childhood at sea floated through my half closed eyelids. The air felt crisp, like the first day of east coast Spring, or San Diego in autumn. We were no longer in the tropics.
We were between two storm fronts, this brief gap granted us delicious sunshine. I love sailing and farming, you can always see the sky, the weather. If you are aware, you know when something is coming because you can see it and feel it. I saw our path towards more clouds and took down my laundry.
Fronts are gorgeous. Massive structures rising from the sea, formidable, voluptuous. A crescendo made visible. Shadows, highlights. Living, breathing beasts that move across a sea just like they move across a desert. Slow motion stampedes. The clouds make visual drama out here in endless expanse.
At twilight, we saw purple lightning crack through the front we’d left behind. I automatically ducked a bit. The last time I’d seen lightning was over La Paz in Baja California almost a year prior. I was coming into a safe harbor then, now we were alone in the open ocean.
Eric went to sleep, I started my night watch. Winds built so I reefed the jib. I saw lightning strike throughout the front coming towards us. We needed to pass through it, that was the direction we needed to go. There was no way around it.
At first, I wanted to wake up the captain. But after doing some deep breathing to calm my nervous system and to think rationally, I realized that wouldn’t help anything. What I wanted to tell him was “I’m scared.” He would make the same judgement calls about direction, about reefing the jib, as I’d already made. All I would achieve would be to rob him of precious sleep, which we both needed.
So I put the backup navigation equipment in the oven, which would protect it from being fried in a lightning strike. As we moved closer to the strikes, and the strikes moved closer to Zephyr, the winds died. The sea was quiet and still. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up from static electricity. I continued deep breathing, and repeated the mantra that my ex NAVY seal scuba teacher taught me when I was twelve. When I was too afraid to go underwater for the first time breathing compressed air. He said: Stop. Breathe. Think. Breathe. Act. Breathe.
I crouched low near the dining table, it made me feel safer. Purple lightning flashed through the cabin windows. But I don’t remember hearing anything. Every fifteen minutes I stood up to brave a peek outside, we were supposed to scan the horizon frequently to avoid hitting anything hard, but I weighed that unlikely danger against the more probable danger of me being outside in a lightning storm. So my checks weren’t as thorough as usual.
I asked the ocean goddesses to let us pass unharmed. After 30 minutes of deep breathing, I’d entered a super aware state. I realized how special this experience was. I think the energy of my fear transformed into an energy of presence. An acceptance that reality is happening, so I might as well witness it.
The lightning transitioned to our port side, clearer skies to starboard welcomed us again. We were alive, and I eagerly woke up the next person to relieve me of my night shift. I nestled into my cozy cave and slipped into a deep sleep.
Chilly morning air greeted us, we retired our shorts and put on pants, beanies and fleeces. Skies were grey but in a quiet, after-the-storm kind of way. Lauren spotted an albatross with her keen whale watch guide eyes. My heart jumped. I’d wanted to see an albatross for years, ever since I heard about their massive wingspan and how they flew forever without stopping. It was a magnificent bird, a magical creature to me, a sign after the lightning storm. I felt held by the universe.
We filled out paperwork to get ready for New Zealand customs officers. Eric’s wrist was still swollen and in a brace. The solanoid broke on the natural gas line to the stove. For the first time ever, I could tell Eric was over it. Many things had broken on this passage and things continued to break. But we needed the stove to heat food and water for coffee. I think it was the coffee alone that motivated him to fix it. Thanks captain.
The sea calmed and the wind started to die. I scanned the horizon and spotted a characteristic shadow poking through far away haze. “Land ho!” I shouted. Lauren and Abby raced on deck and hooted and hollered. Their first open ocean passage was about to come to a successful close. Their eyes were wild, full of excitement and relief. I felt relieved too.
We started to prepare the boat for landfall. Unfortunately, we had to dump a good amount of produce and fresh eggs overboard. New Zealand is strict and we didn’t want to cause any trouble. We’d provisioned for time that we thought we’d spend in Ha’apai but due to weather we had to leave sooner than planned.
I lifted the port transom lazarette hatch to add a full trash bag to the others in that hold. It was full of water. Oh dear. And not just water, it was a soupy mix of trash.
Reluctantly, I told the captain. To his credit, he didn’t even blink. He went to investigate and determined the water came filled the hold during heavy seas we’d encountered in the days prior. He set about separating out the trash and broken glass from the sea soup. I offered to help and he declined. It seemed he treated the experience as his last knock before the ocean allowed him to reach safe harbor.
We turned on the engines and revved them higher than usual to try and make the customs dock before they closed. Eric passed me the helm while he handled the trash. New Zealand’s Bay of Islands welcomed us with misty rain, a giant cruise ship, and a friendly amount of small fishing and sailing boats. I checked the charts to line us up for Opua, a small town where customs would check us in.
We entered the large mouth of the bay, with a tiki face shaped rock to the right. I felt proud of myself and content. I hitchhike sailed across the Pacific from California to New Zealand in little over a year. Looking out onto fuzzy green hills studded with dark green forests giving way to sheer grey rocky cliffs, I was amazed at what you can do when you put one foot in front of the other.