Merry Christmas from the tropics

We’ve been especially busy since leaving Tonga almost 6 weeks ago, although in many ways it feels like we only left yesterday. We set sail to New Zealand with a stop off at Minerva Reef. We were expecting to wait at Minerva for just a few days for an appropriate weather window to continue our journey to New Zealand, but ended up staying for a whole two weeks. It turns out that being stranded in such a remote location (no shops, no buildings, in fact – no land at all!) was one of the best experiences we’ve ever had!

Minerva Reef – no land but the protection from the seas made it a good place to anchor.

A view of our friends boat ‘Local Talent’ from the top of Bob’s mast with reef in the background

 

Here are a few shots from various snorkel trips. The reefs are amazingly healthy and host a wealth of diversity – it’s the best snorkeling either of us have ever done!

Alex did an excellent job of hunting and gathering and brought us back this fabulous lobster for dinner. Another day he brought back an octopus. Fine dining on Bob even in the remotest of places.

 

At low tide the water is shallow enough to take a walk on the reef. We put on the crocs and went for a wonder to the outer reef – here are some shots of our walk on water.

We made it to the outer reef

 

One of the highlights for me was diving with a 10-foot tiger shark in North Minerva. We had heard there was a resident tiger shark lurking around the pass of the atoll and a group of us were keen to check it out. I would have been seriously freaked out if one came along unexpectedly when Alex and I were diving on our own, however, we planned the expedition with some friends in the hope that we would actually get to see this magnificent beast and I felt like we had safety in numbers. During the dive I was busy recording all the small fish species around me when I looked up and saw the stripy grey sheen of something huge about 10 meters from us. The tiger shark made a slow, wide circle around us and was followed by about 20 grey sharks – she made the grey sharks looks like insignificant fish bait. Our friend Gail (who was snorkelling at the surface and had a birds-eye view of the whole thing) must have thought we were about to face a mutilating and gruesome death. Fortunately we survived and it turned out to be another amazing wildlife experience that I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren about when I’m old and wrinkled.

Our passage to New Zealand was wonderful! There was no drama, no breakages, no storms – just relatively smooth sailing for the whole journey and we made a safe arrival in Opua in early December. We picked up our new campervan ready to explore the country by land in a few months time. Otherwise, we spent most of our time preparing the boat and the camper van to be left for a couple of months while we’re in Thailand (and Alex in Australia for a few weeks) visiting my parents.

Sailing into the sunset – leaving Minerva and heading for New Zealand

Land-Ho! Arriving in New Zealand

Alex giving our new camper van (Jacangi) a wash

Bob on her pile mooring in the Kerikeri river. What a lovely home for her over the coming season.

I’ve been in Thailand now for almost two weeks and it’s so wonderful to be in this colourful and vibrant country with my family, some of who I’ve not seen in almost two years! Alex is enjoying the festivities in Australia with his brother and other family members. He will fly out to Thailand to meet me on the 27th of December ready for tropical New Year celebrations on the Thai island of Koh Mak.

Drinks at the Vanilla Sky Bar

The stunning view of Bangkok at night

The family having Christmas eve drinks in a bustling Bangkok street bar

Christmas morning with presents under the ‘tree’

Finally, I’ll leave you with some festive wildlife. Believe it or not, there’s an underwater species known as the ‘Christmas tree worm’. They are a type of tube-building worm that lives in coral reefs and get their name from their Christmas tree-like appearance. Each worm has two brightly coloured crowns that project from its tube-like body which are used for respiration and to catch food. They are about 1.5 inches in length, come in a variety of festive colours and recoil quickly into their burrows when they detect movement by a large creature in their vicinity – it makes them good fun for snorkelers.

Merry Christmas.

Fun, cute and colourful Christmas tree worms – Spirobranchus species

 

 

Poised to Pounce

We set sail from VaVa’U on October 14th and have spent the last couple of weeks slowly working our way South, hopping from island to island following the ridge of volcanic activity that spawned some of the Tongan islands many years ago and which continues to spawn new ones to this day. Every now and then a spurt of activity yields a new one. Many break apart and sink (or even float off into the pacific!) but some are more firmly rooted to the seabed and look set to endure for millennia to come. The most recent was ejected from the bowels of the Earth in March 2015. It’s about 2 square kilometres in area and of course does not appear on our old charts. We know it’s there though, and don’t worry – we won’t hit it!

 

Here we have the volcano island of Kao (on the right!), which we sailed past at a distance. Sarah managed to snap this shot as the haze lifted and I think it looks quite striking. Most of the volcanoes here underwater but some, like this one, project well above it:

We day-sailed down to the Ha’apai Group and spent a little over a week there before making the final hop to Nukualofa, the administrative and commercial capital of Tonga. Being also the closest point to New Zealand (a mere 1020 miles as the whale swims) it’s a good spot to gather ourselves while waiting for the right mix of weather to present itself. Once that opportunity arises we intend to pounce on it to set sail for the Minerva Reefs, followed by the final leg to the North Island of New Zealand.

We are expecting it to be bitter-sweet. We’re leaving behind several friends who have decided to either head for different ports or stay here for the cyclone season. Gone will be the soft-sand beaches bathed in golden sunlight, coconut palms lining every shoreline, warm Polynesian welcomes and wonderful swimming, diving and fishing. On the other hand we are looking forward to supermarkets, open landscapes (other than watery ones) and tucking Bob away on a mooring for a little while and exploring by land for a few months. Sarah’s family recently moved to Thailand, so we intend to fly there for two months. My brother recently moved to Australia so I’ll take the opportunity to visit him over Christmas. New Zealand will be cold and rainy, and we have a lot of work to do on Bob before she’ll be ready for the Torres Straits, Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope back into the Atlantic. We’ve a long way yet to sail and she’s showing her age. There’s some work to do.

We also intend to spend a good deal of time exploring New Zealand. We’ve bought a camper van (here’s a link to an old add for our van: https://www.facebook.com/groups/480823782015631/permalink/1197657770332225/?sale_post_id=1197657770332225 ) and are really looking forward to travelling by land for a bit. I am particularly looking forward to it because it means I can take a back seat (literally as well as figuratively) and allow Sarah to take over the planning and scheduling of our travels. It’ll be quite a treat to have minimal responsibilities. I have aspirations of lounging in bed reading a book and sipping on a beer while being chauffeured around New Zealand from picturesque spot to picturesque spot……….. perhaps it’s more of a fantasy than an aspiration, but regardless it’ll be great.

As I write this we are experiencing a bit of a blow – 25 knots sustained with gusts up to 30 or 35. Bob is neatly lying to her anchor, protected from the seas by a reef half a mile to windward and a motu (island) just off the port bow. Such weather is not unusual at this time of year, when strong high-pressure systems between us and New Zealand reinforce the trade winds along their Northern edges. There are quite a few boats here with us – perhaps 20 – and we all have the same agenda. Some people have light-displacement modern boats and are looking for 12 to 15 knots of wind for their onward journey. Others have heavily-built steel or fibreglass ‘tanks’ which do better in 25 knots. Bob is somewhere in the middle – we like 15 to 20 knots aft of the beam – but all 20 of us are waiting for our chance. Traditionally, the later in the season one departs for New Zealand the more comfortable the passage and the lower the chance of being caught out in a strong low-pressure system. But, the later you leave it the greater the chance (though still small) of encountering a tropical cyclone. The first tropical low (not a cyclone, or even a tropical storm, just a tropical low) of the season looks to be forming over the next week about 800 miles to our WSW. Some forecasts are predicting 60-knot gusts at Minerva, so we’re all watching the development of that with a close eye. If it fails to materialise then early next week looks like it might be a good opportunity to launch. Otherwise it might be another week from now. As always, our lives are managed by ourselves but dictated by the weather. Battling the elements doesn’t really enter into it. If they choose to take up arms, we don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell.

 

Here’s the view forward, taken just after I finished writing this post. The island on the left is Pangaimotu, and houses the famous (for cruisers!) ‘Big Momma’s Restaurant and Bar’. Like many other places that cater to yachts they also do laundry, sell water, take trash, fill cooking gas cylinders, sell diesel and generally provide a host of esoteric services just for us.

 

 

And here’s the view aft, showing some of the other boats in the anchorage. The big catamaran on the right is ‘Prati’ with Magdalena and Carlos on board, whom we first met way back in the Gambier Islands. Far right is ‘Local Talent’ with Gail and Dean on board – two new friends whom we have enjoyed spending a good bit of time with recently. The fourth boat from the right (quite far away) is our very good friends Herbert, Asma and their two boys Adam and Sammy on board ‘Maya’. We first ‘met’ them by radio as they passed by Pitcairn Island in August 2016 and have since spent many enjoyable hours with them at various points along our voyage, as our paths have often crossed. It really is a small world.