Taking a Breather in Minerva

Shaken but with the lucidity of those who have seen the brink, those who have just twiddled a little with the thin and fragile thread from which life is suspended from its own end, we treaded on, northwards. The storm had dragged us further to the East and nudged us across the antemeridian to the western longitudes. The two Minerva reefs were now pretty much due North of us. The sea slowly forgot her fury and settled down to her good-natured ripples. Moderate trade winds picked up on Aluna’s beams and pushed her along. Two days later, just as the sun was setting blood red to the West, I could see a fine thread of white dancing gingerly on the horizon line ahead. I had to stand on the deckpod roof, clinging to the mizzen mast, and even from up there I needed to strain my eyes to see it dip in and out of the sea. The ever-rational GPS had whispered for some time now that we were getting close. But at four miles I was expecting to have a good visual hold on it.

Then again, it is only a reef in midst of the wide ocean. “Reef is exposed at low tide”, the charts and guidebooks summed it up without the slightest hint of romance. South Minerva on the satellite image looks like a figure eight knocked over to one side, or an infinity symbol trying to get up from its eternal slumber. Only its Northeastern loop has a pass for ships our size. Approaching the reef from the South as we were we would have to go around the bottom lagoon and its enclosing reef, then sail down its northern shore to the center where the two loops meet. While being nothing but a tiny spec in the vast ocean the whole reef is still about five miles wide and darkness was falling fast. There was no way we could make it to the entrance with sufficient daylight to navigate the pass and find a suitable place to anchor. The lighthouse was already sending tiny bursts of focused light out over the steel blue waters and the foaming crests of a meandering line of heavy breakers were abeam by now, just before the night took it all away and we were left with the sweeping ray of the navigation light, and some rudimentary mental maps of the reefs outline. Giving it a wide berth we continued on, passing to the West of it and once clear we altered course to the Northeast towards the reef’s northerly cousin twenty miles away.

Twenty miles is too short a distance to sail through an entire night. At midnight I parked Aluna with the main sail sheeted in tight, the mizzen a little less so and the rudder cranked into the wind. Like that she makes almost no headway while bobbing in small, short arcs into the wind, from where she falls off to do it all over again. By that time North Minerva’s light had come into view, still dipping in and out behind the distant wave trains. Before going below and leaving the watch to Nephi I told him to give me a shout at four in the morning to start making way again for an early morning landfall.  Well, landfall turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration in this case.

There was barely a hint of the upcoming dusk under the two bright stars to the East when I popped my head up again. Nephi for some reason had lost track of the direction, most probably due to the constant pendulum of Aluna’s restricted motion, and thought she had turned around. “Just check the lighthouse”, I mumbled still groggy from the few hours slumber. I released Aluna from her constraints and she galloped happily over the gentle swells towards our destination. North Minerva Reed is an almost perfectly round atoll, its lagoon enclosed by a reef, that like its southern cousin is almost completely awash at high tide, but exposed at low water. The about 80m wide pass is situated to the Northwest and we had to make our way around the southern and western shore. Again the white line of foamy breakers became more and more pronounced as we approached beyond four miles. We followed them around and soon found ourselves just outside the pass. There was not much wiggle room from our angle of sail but soon Aluna sailed calmly across flat turquoise waters. We wanted to get to the other side of the about three miles wide lagoon to get to the part that is most protected from the swells. On a nice stretch of sandy bottom we came to rest and dropped the hook. I had thought that Aluna was just about going to touch the bottom, but when I let the anchor down it wasn’t until all the chain had gone out that I felt it touch, which meant that we were still in five meters of water. Such was the clarity of the water!

While Nephi went below for a well-merited rest I myself was too pumped up to be able to sleep. I looked around and soaked my weary self in the surreal scene around us while pretending to clean up the lines and things strewn on deck. We had entered the lagoon pretty much at high tide and the protective circle around us consisted only of a line of white foamy breakers, much more pronounced and spectacular to the South and East from where the main swell was pounding the reef, remnants most probably from the bout of bad weather we had come through ourselves. Now the waters were slowly going down and the culprits for all this white commotion came into view. I was unable to stop myself imagining a submerged porcelain teacup abandoned long ago by a stiff upper-lipped heritage of royal British refinement, with its rim barely touching the surface. This cup I reckoned to sit firmly perched atop a steeply sloped seamount that jotted up from the seabed four miles down in an eternal lightless realm of punishing compression. Inside the cup were layers of sediment tossed around by the constant tidal flow and replenished ever anew by the powerful erosion of the reefs structure by the pounding surf on the outside of the rim. In actuality the reef that started to emerge from the sea was of olive or ochre color, not the shiny white of delicate and precious Chinaware. A host of oddly shaped boulders of darker coral rock lay strewn about it, giving the odd impression of a very existentialist sculpture garden, stark and devoid of any sultry, verdant vegetation. In spite of the deliberate and quite fatherly protection from the swells of the open ocean there was a haunting feel of absolute loneliness in the air and my mind retreated for a moment into the many daunting tales of desperate men having wrecked their ships on this speck of sharp and very hard coral rock. The closest inhabited land is just shy of three hundred nautical miles away and in a direction you can only reach with a seaworthy craft able to sail into the wind if need be.

But there we have it again, our little, overly human mind. Instead of drinking in the beauty around us we’re always conjuring up some imminent disaster with ever so dire consequences, just to be able to justify the latent fear we seem to thrive on with our neurotic bags of emotional hurt. Can I throw it away, be it only for a moment? And enjoy being alive and well in such an incredible place! Especially after what we had just gone through…

I can. I can push the nagging away, by sheer will, and force myself to pay attention. The wind streams over the deck, tugging on anything lose. It brings with it the sound of the breakers upwind. Relentless crashing, fierce foaming, stubborn resistance, constant wear and tear. Bright sunlight floods upon us from up there, so strong it seems like a rain of liquid lead, light with weight, heavy light. A shadow moves in the water not far off. I run to the bow, straining my eyes. It’s a stingray gliding gently, trailing its thin tail, and undulating its wingtips like an underwater flyer! Then it hits me. This is what’s so strange about this place: No birds! In most cases where you have a speck of solid earth jotting out of the ocean surface, be it as rugged and remote as it can be, there will be a crowd of birds claiming it to perch on and poop all over it. Not here. Not a single feathered friend in sight! And with that the nagging comes back with a vengeance. The absence caught the mind’s eye way faster than the presence; the negative excites the reasoning far more than any positive. The lack of boobies and terns and petrels and tropicbirds and albatrosses, gannets, frigate birds, wobblers and yes, why not parrots, pelicans, crows, swallows, sparrows, swans, geese, and hummingbirds, that cruel and creepy absence of things excited my reasoning to the point of understanding. Right there and then I realized, in the truest sense of the word, that I am that negative, I am built and woven from the negative, the echo, the grooves of the past. So much so is my very essence bound by the realm of the negative, that I have to treat myself constantly to a flimsy and fickle illusion, one that has been nurtured and cultivated throughout my upbringing, confirmed by all sorts of educations, reaffirmed by well-meaning friends and many a ruthless stranger: the illusion that I could, and one day would, be positive. So I’m spending my entire life running away from who and what I really am, longing to be something I am not and cannot be! The consequences of this simple insight, if you understand what I mean, are simply earth shattering, even cosmos shattering. But then I was not born to be a preacher, much less out here surrounded by a lonesome coral atoll, cradled lovingly within an ancient crater. So until you see for yourself, heed all my words with utmost care and let me get my feet back on some solid ground!

With that riddle solved for good, I got the paddles out of the forward hatch and stepped down into the canoe. It took some really hard paddling to make headway into the wind and the surreal seascape of half submerged boulders was further away than it had looked from up on Aluna’s deck. How good it felt though to use the body for more than slouching around on a heaving deck! Slowly I got into the rhythm of it. Stroke after stroke, deep breath after deep breath, pull after pull, gorgeous Aluna became smaller and smaller behind me until it looked like a miniature toy ready to fall off the horizon’s edge. Under the canoe a tapestry of all kinds of odd shapes unraveled. By now I was able to touch the ground with my paddle. Giant clams opened their wavy lips, colored in phosphorescent green, potent purpure, lush pink and dark, almost black blue. Sea urchins were cramped in crevices everywhere, gently swaying their prickly self back and forth. Bright flashes of metallic blue zipped from one ledge of a coral clump to the other, seemingly unafraid of being seen. These little tiny fish, and their yellow cousins who were less solitary driven and swam around in small schools, gave the dirt green background of sculpted limestone a tropical accent, and they used their bright appearance shamelessly to grab my attention time after time. Teeny crayfish of laughable stature darted from here to there so fast, it was obvious they owned a strict awareness that the odds of being eaten were stacked heavily against them. This was clearly not the case for the meter and a half of shark that patrolled the shallows a little distance away. With the absolute confidence of a predator at the very top of the food chain it swam towards me sinuously and dark grey before turning away and continued on its search for more edible entertainment. Having yet another look at the black spikes of the many urchins I decided against setting foot on solid ground just yet, making a mental note to bring some sandals along for the next visit to the reef. Paddling back was a breeze, pushed with ease by the wind. All I needed to make sure was not to drift past Aluna at an amazing speed.

The next day the wind had dropped to a feeble ripple on the water. Nephi spent the days down on his bunk, devouring book after book from Aluna’s waterlogged library, and in the short conversations we had he scorned at the academics of the world while elaborating greatly about the superiority of the indigenous mind. It took quite a bit of coaching to get him into the canoe the following day. It was low tide and the reef exposed, perfect for finally getting our feet onto this whimsical protrusion of solid Mother Earth. With the big kitchen knife from Aluna’s galley clenched in hand he gingerly stepped off the canoe, took a couple steps, reached down into the ankle deep water, pulled out one of the urchins with his bare hands and split the spiny bundle open on the canoe seat. “This is not like the ones we have back home”, he said with visible disappointment, tasted the tip of his finger he had dunked into the creatures exposed innards and then discarded the lifeless heap with disgust. We then wandered off in opposite directions over this vast expanse of tidal flats. I was drawn to the outside of the reef, where the by now quite benign white breakers came crashing in. There was about 300 meters of indentured and creviced ochre coral rock to cross. Invisible critters darted away from me as I made my way across leaving tiny ripples in their wake along the miniature channels. Some bigger splashes out to the sides I could only guess were made by eels, light brown colored wriggles of skin gone in less than a flash. Soon the coral flat dipped again towards the sea and I waded through ankle deep water weary of some creatures ready to nibble away on my legs. A school of dark green parrotfish circled in the churned up waters, they also moved politely elsewhere as soon as I approached. Nature pretty much afraid of human intruders, it seemed to me. There was a sense of plundered bounty, overgrazed pastures and abused equilibrium. All the many stories of free-ranging lobsters and seafood abundance did not jibe at all with what I saw. A short fishing expedition with the hand line from the canoe confirmed this initial impression. The little visible life was very weary of our presence. But first I had to wade back across the wrinkled plain. We took back two of the giant clams for diner and a couple of the little crabs for bait, paying our own dues to human exploitation.

That night there was a second light visible over to the West away from the lighthouse when I poked my head out of the companionway after a late night pee around midnight and in the morning a catamaran motored into the lagoon through the pass. Later that day another one steamed in and the following day a third yacht joined the crowd. The Minerva Reefs have become a common stopover for the hordes of cruising yachts and I have heard stories of a full twenty-one of them at anchor at a given time. Our little soul-searching paradise had been transformed into a pitstop along the busy superhighway of the South Seas cruising circuit. The winds had backed to the West and the forecast had them go South and then Southeast by tomorrow. Time to move on, time to get on the last leg of this lonesome journey!

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3 Responses to “Taking a Breather in Minerva”

  1. Thiago Ramos Pias Says:

    Hello, guys. I’m curious about one thing. What technologies you guys are using to post text into alunaboat blog from remote places like minerva reefs?

    tks very much, keep save, and keep dreaming.

    Regards from Thiago (tiki 31 – Kahuna)

    • alunaboat Says:

      Usually my write-ups lag a couple weeks behind and are posted from wherever I can get Internet access. While at Minerva I was able to post a quick update via email and the help of one of the fellow sailors who sent the note off through their shortwave radio.

  2. Bob Bois Says:

    Nice, Beat!
    I’ve never been to the Minerva Reefs but you beautifully evoked the sense of this place. Desolate, lonely. Alive, but…
    If you ever get a chance to read the novel, “The Boats of the Glen Carig”, by William Hope Hodgson I think you’ll recognize a kindred spirit. Your cadence and word choices, your decisions regarding which detalis, small and large, to include, and in which order – are all reminiscent of Hodgson’s story of weird sea-places. It is an atmospheric horror story, though – be warned.
    If I ever get out sailing with you, I will be sure to bring you a copy!

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