Fishing for tropical species on the Pacific Cruising Rally...
Back in 2021 during COVID lockdowns, I took over a company called Island Cruising NZ. Being a keen sailor and adventurer, it was the perfect business fit for me. You see, Island Cruising runs yacht rallies to the Pacific, and for the last 40 years, its aim has been to help sailors achieve their cruising goals, sailing their own boats to the tropical South Pacific Islands.
Given that international borders were closed at the time, and running events of any kind was almost impossible, most of my friends thought I was absolutely crazy, but I’ve always believed in following my dreams and once I got started, I’ve never looked back.
If you’ve ever envisaged yourself venturing offshore to the Pacific Islands, exploring white sandy beaches, swimming in crystal clear waters, meeting friendly locals, experiencing new cultures and catching some big fish along the way, then joining a yacht rally is a great option. The rally includes heaps of assistance and advice to help people prepare their vessels, their crew and themselves for an offshore voyage and connects them with others heading in the same direction.
Each year in May an exodus of boats migrate north from New Zealand bound for Minerva Reef, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. The passage takes about a week and with most of the boats cruising at around 6-8 knots, it is the perfect speed for trolling a line – usually with great success.
The 2023 Pacific Rally is the biggest fleet yet made up of 72 boats with both yachts and a couple of powerboats making the 1,200 nautical mile passage. They range from the smallest boat – a yacht of around 37’ – right through to a super-fast 60’ foiling power cat. The vessels usually spend around six months exploring the South Pacific Islands before heading back to New Zealand again in October.
For entertainment on the passage this year, there was a blog post competition, a photography challenge for the best sunset at sea, and of course – a fishing competition.
Ballingers Hunting & Fishing in Christchurch very generously sponsored some lures to include in the rally packs and Burnsco in Opua gave a fantastic fishing demonstration in their shop to share some tips on the rigging and advice on how to get fish on board.
After a short delay in Opua to wait for the perfect weather window, the gloomy unfavorable conditions in Northland finally cleared, and our meteorologist gave us the go-ahead to depart. With all the paperwork and formalities completed, the boats all topped up with duty-free fuel and set off for their passage north.
A brisk southerly whipped up the waves offshore which made for an uncomfortable but fast ride for the yachts. With sails filled and spray foaming on the bow they were slingshot away from New Zealand and into the deep blue yonder.
Conditions eased to a more comfortable ride on day two and the temperature slowly started to rise. With everyone getting their sea legs, the lines were dropped over the side to see if there were any fish about.
Most of the boats carry some decent fishing gear on board, but all that is really needed for catching some big fish is a strong hand line, a bungee system, a wire trace, and a big hook in a lure. This is simply lowered off the back of the boat and trolled along behind until something decides to take a bite.
Then it is all hands on deck to get the fish on board. Slowing down the boat is the first priority and when you’re flying downwind with some big sails up this is sometimes easier said than done. Keeping all the crew onboard is another consideration, as it can be easy to slip off the transom in the excitement of the moment. Then the aim is to get the fish on the boat before something else gets to it first! Finally, it is important to get a great photo to share with your fellow rally participants in the spirit of friendly competition and of course to make all your friends back home super jealous.
Starlink has been a game changer for offshore communications. Previously satellite download speeds and data restrictions meant that sending anything more than a basic text message when offshore was almost impossible for the recreational boatie. But this time many of the boats fitted with a Starlink dish were able to share their photographs of their fantastic catches while the fish was still flapping on the deck.
Wahoo, mahimahi, and some impressive big tuna photos started coming through the WhatsApp rally group chat along with some pretty spectacular sunset photographs. With limited fridge space on board, fish were released too, including some beautiful sailfish.
One of the highlights of a passage to Tonga or Fiji is a stopover in Minerva Reef, and with a low developing over New Zealand and an unfavourable northerly gale in the forecast, many of the boats decided to spend a few days at this magical place and cook up their catch.
North and South Minerva are about five days sail from New Zealand. The two submerged atolls are the coral tops of underwater mountains rising from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. They are awash at high tide and all but invisible apart from waves breaking over the reef. At low tide a small slither of golden sand and rocky reef is exposed enabling you to stretch your legs and explore. It is a common stopover for boats heading to and from the Pacific and a favourite for keen fishing folk. The reef is teeming with life, from colourful reef fish through to larger menacing reef sharks who have no hesitation in snatching a bite out of anything you’ve got on your line. The reef is also home to the stunning painted lobster and most of the rally boats were able to dive down and catch a few of these beautiful, delicious creatures. Anchored up together inside the reef, the fresh bounty was cooked on the BBQ and shared with others whose fishing quest hadn’t been quite so productive.
The weather blew through, and the boats were able to continue on for Tonga. Once again lines were dropped over the side and quickly more fish were being pulled aboard.
One particular wahoo wasn’t quite so keen on ending up as dinner, however. The crew gaffed the big fish and managed to get it on board, but in the struggle to finish it off, the fish managed to get its jaws around one of the crew’s legs. These fish have big mouths which are well-equipped with razor-sharp teeth. The unfortunate crew member later described the bite like being attacked with two hacksaws. The damage was a deep gash in the back of the leg and a nasty open wound in the lower shin.
One of the requirements for New Zealand registered vessels going offshore is for the crew to have Offshore Medic training and to be equipped with what is called a Cat 1 Medical kit, so the boats can deal with challenging medical conditions and injuries when they are offshore or in remote places.
With crimson blood from both the fish and the crew member coating the deck, the rest of the crew sprang into action, administering pain relief, carefully cleaning the injuries, and then stapling up the large gash with a surgical stapler. This proved to be a lot more challenging than the pig’s trotter they’d practiced on during the Medic course.
They then got on the satellite phone to the RCCNZ for further advice, patching the skipper through to a doctor who was able to prescribe a course of antibiotics and painkillers from the medicines in their offshore medical kit. On arrival in Tonga, they visited the hospital to get checked out and it turns out the doctor was very impressed with their handiwork.
This year there are over 35 children on the rally and many of the families congregate together. Their mornings are spent doing lessons on board via Te Kura – the New Zealand Correspodence school, and the afternoons are spent snorkelling, fishing, exploring ashore, meeting local children and of course, bonfires on the beach.
While there is a loose guide for dates and destinations on the rally, you’ve got the flexibility to do your own thing, but an instant connection with others heading in the same direction and backup and support if you need it. Many of the friendships formed on an adventure like this last a lifetime.
August 2023 - Viki Moore
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
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