Hunga Haven Circumnavigation then onward to North Minerva Reef

Sat 29 Oct 2016 21:20

Hunga Haven Circumnavigation then onward to North Minerva Reef

Four red ensigns rose gently to the breeze on this crystalline blue day. Taking a good look around I was reminded of the idyllic stories of Arthur Ransome in Swallows and Amazons. Hunga even has two wooded islands where one can land a canoe and go exploring. That’s it, the canoe.

We lowered ourselves gently into our now familiar little canoe and started paddling towards one of the islands, or rather the gap between it and the shore. The tide was rising, even so we were aware of the limestone rocks on the reef beneath us so we decided not to land. The little graveyard with its fresh gravel mounds has a promontory all to itself near the small village that straddles a concrete road leading down to the quay.

A couple of days before an orange ship had anchored just outside the entrance and little fishing boats from the village went out to wait alongside as plastic water tanks were gingerly lowered onto them. One boat was so tiny it chose to tow them behind and another was loaded with one on the foredeck, another on top and a third over the stern cockpit, the skipper guided by instinct and a sixth sense, back to the quay. They were part of Americanaid and I wondered what price they were expected to pay, support and votes at a summit maybe.

The quay was quiet as we paddled by towards the clear reef extending out from the shore infront of the now closed resort near where Barry has the use of a holiday home for rental. We kept stilling the paddles to take in the surroundings, the canoe casting a long shadow beneath us startled two green turtles that took off and paddled themselves into the deeper blue water.

Then a few feet to our right we noticed another bigger regular turtle shape shell, four feet long, and slowly it rose to the surface. Its magnificently patterned shell, shiny from the water, emerged first then its head and hawklike bill, hence the name Hawksbill. He looked at us as we looked back at him, unfussed he exhaled, took in a new breath and slowly glided across our bow to join his friends.

There was a substantial jetty we had to deviate around, made of concrete and sand sacks and top layered with smooth concrete, but it had a gap right through it which rendered it pretty useless. We wondered if an earthquake had caused the break and what it was used for in its intact day. There were once coconut and citrus palm plantations working here so I guess the answers

in the palm of our hands!

The lagoon has three breaks in the reef only one of which is navigable. The first we came to opened onto the Pacific to the west and sizeable waves broke through causing our little canoe to wobble a bit, but nothing scary. We hovered, watching the swell and white horses outside while we were snuggly tucked inside.

A derelict house, with its own small beach set our imaginations going. It didn’t look like a holiday home with no lagoon facing windows or balcony, so maybe a plantation owner’s home vacated at the same time as the now overgrown plantation. Fruit bats fly gently overhead, but no barking dogs or cockerels here.

Zoonie looked tiny in the distance. We paddled across our entrance, the tin opener rock did look like Marge Simpson with the beaky mouth and beehive hairstyle, just as Rob had suggested. The southern break in the shore looks out over a reef where locals take their little fishing boats day and night and clamber out to collect shellfish and crabs.

Just a little further to go, a dugout canoe with outrigger awaits its owners return on one beach. I wonder if he was, or knew, the owner of the line of clothes we had found in the woods.

The day was too lovely for sitting around, so with the canoe propped up against the forestay, draining, we went for a snorkel. New on the list was a small lion fish and more of the chubby salmon pink and spindly blue starfish, sand coloured fish with silver eyes and the palest blue small fish floating within the protective spines of an urchin.

Sundowners on that perfect day was spent watching giant fruit bats emerging from one tree, collecting fruit and flying back to another tree, big dark brown shapes in the changing sky, their wingspan had to be a metre at least. The tide was going out on the reef and through binoculars we watched a black heron fishing, crabs on high heels scurrying around and a small white and blue kingfisher, perched on a limestone rock, watching.

During our stay the little black junk rigged boat called Zebedee was towed in through the narrow gap and picked up one of the buoys next to us, her tow yacht picking up the other. Finally we got to meet Alan and his sailing friend, Caroline. She is a modern sister ship to Badger, and was built in 2000. Alan is based in New Zealand but Caroline flew out from England for her holiday and lives in Bovey Tracey, not far from my brother Rob’s farm in Holsworthy, Devon.

Alan gave me his email as we supped tea and ate chocolate cake and I promised to send him all the photos I have taken of her. He is a member of the Junk Rig Association of which I was editor for a number of years when Emily was a little girl and we lived in Lymington.

Barry’s wifi on board enabled us to catch up with emails, sending blogs and pictures, including the ones to Zebedee, downloading the weather and Googling to our hearts content. So I looked up the Junk Rig Association on Google to find it is fully on line and discovered Annie Hill, one time owner of Badger, whom I met years ago and Alan knows well is now the president. She lives in New Zealand and is fitting out a new boat, so who knows, maybe our paths will cross once again.

Finally the inevitable day of departure dawned and we rowed ashore feeling excited to be moving on once more, but sorry to be leaving this lovely place.

Clement was busy cutting bathroom tiles, so soon the makeshift shower on the beach, hidden behind a screen of pandanus leaves, will become obsolete. We waited until he saw us and after he turned off the generator had a brief chat before he went to collect Barry, giving us the chance to fuss their lovely black and tan dog, a beach comber and sun bather whose name we never knew.

We settled up, exchanged a few words including the all important, “May we take four papayas please?” And promised we would be back next year, hoping naively that nothing would have changed to spoil the magical place. Cindy waved from the window as we clambered back into the dinghy, we blew air kisses to eachother.

I spent some time baking for the journey. Cherry crumble, time the tinned cherry pie filling was used with its sell by date Sept 2011. I always make too much crumble mix so I added shredded coconut and a beaten egg to the remainder to make biscuits. The flapjack used the last of the golden syrup, the last packet of yoghurt mix was set yogging and the beans I had soaked overnight bubbled away in fresh water along with potato and eggs to hardboil. A couple of tins of tuna added to the beans and potatoes, fried onions and peppers made enough meals for four days.

The following morning was Sunday, a lovely day as we edged back along our black inward route showing on the Raymarine Control App on the tablet. With the early sun low and behind us somehow the gap looked narrower and the water was whirling merrily around the rocks to add the few tense moments with Rob on the foredeck pointing to the safe water.

All clear and off soundings in no time we notice the ultra-modern aerofoil twin masts of a cat we had seen in the Neiafu mooring field. She gradually overhauled us and disappeared off in the same direction as us.

The wind was variable and more south than south east and a slow boat to North Minerva was in prospect. By way of a distraction Rob set the fishing line astern. Not long after there was a squeal from the reel and a loud splash. Something really big judging by the area of bubbles it had created spat out the plastic lure in disgust. Not being one to give up easily Rob reset the line. A few minutes later another squeal and the top of the rod was bent over like a question mark. This time the entire lure and trace went leaving just the line. Soon we saw why.

Not far from Zoonie the biggest tuna we have seen were jumping around us just investigating. I thought they were dolphin to begin with as they were nearly the same size but their body and fin shape were quite different. Charcoal backs and light underbellies with a yellow band along their sides; another one for Mr Google. It was clear the only tuna we would catch would be from the tins in the store cupboard.

It took five days of fitful, sometimes perfect sailing and a worrying 40 hours of motoring to reach the surreal North Minerva Reef. We had to slow Zoonie so as to arrive in first light, at a time when speed is of the essence. We even toyed with the idea of sailing past, as others did, using what appeared to be a good weather window to continue the passage.

But we had been doing three hour watches at night instead of five hour ones and being woken up twice each night from deep sleep had taken its toll. And apart from that we needed to ready Zoonie for what may be ahead.

The first thing we saw of the reef were the familiar two masts of the catamaran which had left Tonga with us, safely anchored inside on the lagoon. Then random rocks could be seen sitting on the reef just like the surface of the moon. But unlike the moon, clouds of white water and rollers were breaking as we approached from half a mile away. Rob gave me a waypoint about a mile out so I had time to line Zoonie up for a transit in. The water was lighter to each side of the wide gap showing where the reef dropped away to deeper blue water in the middle. A nice straightforward entry and then 3.5 miles across to the comparatively rock free SE side where we would be facing the wind over the reef and so not likely to be pushed towards it.

I imagine the navy of some country such as the US, Japan or Aus or NZ have blasted these entrances into North and South Minerva because an entire fleet could rest up in here.

After anchoring Rob had a chat with the gentleman on the cat over the radio. They arrived the day before but would be setting off the next morning into the continuing good weather window. A slow moving high over us giving SE – E winds for the next few days.

We downloaded a grib file and agreed we would stay just the one night, do the necessary jobs and leave on the morrow. The storm jib was set on the new babystay on the foredeck. The deflated tender was double lashed to the foredeck, the ventilation dorades were replaced with screw on covers. Sails were moved from the forepeak to the main saloon to lighten Zoonie’s bow and, bizarrely our walking shoes were cleaned of their Machu Picchu mud ready to comply with NZ Biosecurity!

We relaxed in the cockpit with a second rum punch and lime juice watching the mirage on the opposite side of the reef. Rocks and clouds of foaming water were not attached to anything, instead they floated like irregular genies, the air beneath them undulating like heat vapour. A few white sails sped by and three more yachts came in for a brief respite. No derelict yachts here!