In September to November 1970, the 45 ft Bermudan sloop 'Aqualas' sailed on a cruise from Auckland to Great Barrier Island, Whangarei, Kermadec Islands, South Minerva Reef, Tonga, Vatoa Island, (on the day of Fiji's independence), Fiji's capital Suva and other islands in Fiji, before returning to New Zealand. There were 9 crew aboard, and the object of the cruise was to get crayfish at South Minerva Reef and sail to Fiji and sell them,. It didn't work out that way, but it proved to be an enjoyable and interesting cruise nevertheless.
The following is the South Minerva Reef leg of the cruise.....
Having arrived in the vicinity of South Minerva Reef from Raoul Island, it became apparent that by the time we would enter the passage into the reef, it would be too late in the day to see properly, so we sailed away for the night, and for one reason or another, it was not until we obtained a noon sight next day that we could find the reef again. The reef first appeared as a fine white thread on the distant horizon. We passed through the entrance to South Minerva Reef conned by the skipper up the mast calling directions. Once inside the reef, the swell we had gotten used to immediately disappeared. A white sandy bottom regularly spotted with high coral heads was easily seen in the crystal-clear 40-60 ft deep lagoon. Next morning before breakfast I fell overboard and shot a queen trigger fish beneath the boat.
On board we had a WWII vintage dive-bottle compressor and several dive-bottles including some of unusually small proportions. As well, the compressor maintained a large one-ton capacity freezer strapped to the deck and which was full of various frozen foods including many cartons of steak. Initially we had loaded a few cylinders of ice into it that had been cooled to minus 40C.
We were going to fill the freezer with cray tails from South Minerva Reef, then sell them in Fiji. That was the vision! A couple of hundred metres away lay the wreck of the Japanese long-liner that 17 Tongans had lived on, some dying before help arrived in 1962. We could still see the charcoal from the fire they maintained on the hull. The best book written about the Tongans' shipwreck and subsequent survival ( and some who didn't) on this wreck is the book 'Minerva Reef' by Olaf Ruhen', published in the year after they were rescued in 1962, by Angus and Robertson Ltd., illustrated, 200 pages. I recall seeing the outrigger boat that they made out of the wreck and that David Fifita sailed to Kandavu in Fiji at an Easter Show in Auckland shortly after they were rescued and David Fifita was there too. Little did I know that a few short years later I would crawl over the very wreck he survived on.
Don Armitage © 2008
In the book 'Minerva Reef' on pages 18-19 there is a description of the keeler Tuaikaepau that the Tongans were on when they were wrecked in 1962.
"She had a long career. She was launched in 1902 from the same Bailey yard in Auckland as launched the Strathcona, but her life was sixty years; the Strathcona's six days. The owners who first her were Captain Stanhope and a Mr Shakespear, of Great Barrier Island. She was a keeler, 51 feet overall; and, conceived in a year of transition, she had features that wedded the beauty of the past to the innovations of the century".
"Captain Stanhope soon acquired his partner's interest in the yacht, then named Ilex..."
Wreck of a Japanese fishing vessel on South Minerva Reef as we saw it circa September, 1970.
The wreck was the saviour of several shipwrecked Tongan yachtsmen who survived on it for about 100 days before rescue in 1962.
Left and below- RNZAF photos of the wreck and castaways at the time of their rescue in 1962