Minerva Reef
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Another lucky chance.  Thank goodness, the Man upstairs is looking our for us.

"We have 45 knots and 5 meter seas!"  "I am turning back to Fiji!"  "A huge wave just came down the companionway! The autopilot is broken and several of our electronics are damaged with saltwater."  "We just lost our headstay!"

These were the radio reports being heard by my owners as we were sailing toward New Zealand from Tonga.   I found these reports a little difficult to believe as I had been sailing along for 3 days with 15-20 knots of wind on my beam, clear, sunny skies and having a great time.  Bob and Judi listened to the reports with great interest and apprehension as these boats were about 300 miles ahead of us and we were heading in that direction.  I thought, "OK - what's the big deal?  After all, this is the kind of weather I am built to handle", but my owners had different thoughts. It turned out we were close to a place called South Minerva Reef, so they decided to head for it and wait for the weather further south to improve.

I looked at the reef, and thought, what in the world are they thinking now?  Are they going to try to anchor me in the middle of the ocean - where is the island!?"  Then I spotted a Tongan fishing boat  and thought - OK maybe this isn't so bad, maybe I could make friends with them.  Bob pulled out an old chart and steered us through the opening in the reef while Judi stood watch on the bow.  Just as they dropped the anchor, the crew from the fishing boat came over to trade 2 gigantic lobsters for a bit of rum from my owners. My crew was happy enough to make the trade and Judi started the pot boiling for a dinner.  I could hear the lobsters scampering around in my cockpit being chased by an ice pick-wielding Bob, oblivious of their unfortunate fate.  That night as they feasted on lobster, I had a chance to look around at my surroundings.  It was a bit eerie, as we were basically anchored in the middle of the ocean with a rim of coral surrounding us and protecting us from the big ocean swells, but small ones did managed to make it over at high tide.  The coral and fish around me were plentiful and some of the most colorful that I have seen.

The next day, the wind switched, so Bob decided we should move to a more "secure" location.  Up with my anchor and we cautiously motored over to the other side of the reef with Judi keeping careful watch for "bommies" on the bow.  What luck, they found a nice sandy shelf of about 10 feet on which to drop the anchor.  The shelf did drop off rather sharply, but the anchor seemed dug in when we backed down on it with the engine, so we believed we were fine. 

We then settled in and waited for my boat buddy, "Pacific Voyager," to arrive as they too were coming in to wait for weather to clear.  Both boats agreed to keep on an anchor light as the nights were very dark and there was no landmark for a point of reference, as there was no land.  That night we were all awoken by the sound of thunder, and squally winds as the trailing edge of the front causing the bad weather further south crossed our location.  As Bob went out to check on Pacific Voyager, I heard him yell, "The anchor is dragging - we're moving!"  The wind pushed me backwards at about 3 knots, and  I saw sharp, jagged edges of huge coral heads come within inches of my keel.  Just when I thought, OK, this is it! - the chain became taunt, stopping my movement.  For the moment, we all heaved a huge sigh or relief, but the danger was not yet over as the squalls continued and we had no idea when or if we would start dragging again.    Bob and Judi set up an "anchor watch", with Bob defining a small anchor area on our radar and both of them taking turns to ensure that we were still in that area, although, I don't know what they would have done, if the anchor had come loose again.

That was a LONG night, but by first light, the squalls were gone - in fact, there wasn't a breath of wind now.  Bob started the engine and we carefully motor forward, as Judi took in the anchor chain.  That's when we all discovered how close I came to ending up as part of the coral reef  - just the tip of my anchor was wedged in the top of a coral head.  With my anchor again, on board, they motored over to Pacific Voyager and dropped both my CQR and Danforth anchors, this time in a 40 ft. patch of sand, clear of all coral.  Bob dove in to check and make sure they were well dug in and we all cautiously relaxed, snorkeled and waited another 3 days until the gales between us and New Zealand cleared out.  We waited a total of  5 days in Minerva Reef, before we were again on our way.  Except for 2 days of 30-35 knot winds, the rest of the trip was uneventful and we even had to motor the last 3 days into the Bay of Islands as there was no wind.

Lessons Learned

  • Do NOT drop anchor on a shallow shelf that drops sharply off into deep water.  
  • Consider using two anchors when anchored in a risky location.
  • Without land, there are no landmarks or reference points at night with which to determine if you have moved.  The only point of reference we had was the anchor light on Pacific Voyager and if they had not been there, we would have had no way to visually determine where the edge of the reef was.  
  • Do not anchor alone in a risky location.  Always try to have at least one other boat around.  We were not going to go into the reef if the Tongan fishing boat had not been there.  The day they left, our friends on Pacific Voyager joined us and we both stayed together until the weather cleared.
  • Whenever possible, always check the anchor with snorkel gear.  It is a bit of a nuisance, but it definitely gives you peace of mind and a restful night's sleep.
  • The decision to stop and wait for weather was the right decision.  The dragging of the anchor was a mistake in our anchoring technique, not in the decision to stop.  Several cruisers sustained serious damage to their boats and equipment in that gale which lasted for about a week.  Unfortunately, when the weather turned bad, they did not have the choice to stop.
  • Use of the radar for an anchor watch.  We were able to define a circular area around us on the radar as a boundary.  If we left that boundary, an alarm would sound and we would know that we had dragged.  (This was before GPS selective-availability was switched off and we could not trust our GPS.)
  • Use GPS (now that selective-availability is turned off) as an anchor watch.
  • If we had not been able to stop, we would have tried to heave-to in our present location until the gales cleared  After first ensuring that we would drift away from the reef, we  had plenty of sea-room as we were about 100 miles from the nearest land.

[Read my next story about a BIG wave]


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