Riviera

An 'Escapade' of a lifetime and a dream fulfilled

A Tsunami warning, tragic ferry sinking and May Day calls to help other vessels were some of the challenges faced by the crew on board the Riviera 47 Enclosed Flybridge, Escapade, when Ross Knutson and his crew made the blue water voyage from New Zealand to Vava’u in Tonga in May 2009.  According to Ross, Tonga is the best fishing destination in the Pacific and a boaties’ dream.  The keen game fishers spent a good part of the voyage chasing marlin and yellow fin tuna.  They also participated in the local yachting regatta and annual Billfish Tournament. But life at sea can be unpredictable and Escapade found herself assisting in the search and rescue following the sinking of the Tongan passenger ferry Princess Ashika  where 74 people lost their lives, she also responded to a May Day call to help a Spanish Yacht and also responded to a call for assistance after a man severed his finger. 

After 55 years living and working at the family’s dairy farm in the lower Waikato region on New Zealand’s west coast, Ross Knutson decided it was time for a sea change to pursue his dream of an international blue water voyage.

Ross and his wife, Denise, moved to the beach town of Cooks Beach which is near Whitianga on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand’s North Island, where they established a charter company, Island Cruise, in 2008.

Being keen game fishers, Ross and Denise dreamed of cruising the deep blue chasing marlin, so when the opportunity arose in 2009, Ross jumped at the chance.

This was the maiden ocean voyage for Riviera 47 Enclosed Flybridge, Escapade, which was loaded up with 3700 litres of fuel in the tanks plus an additional 1600 litres in drums before it left the port of Tauranga on Monday, May 18, 2009 bound for Vava’u, the Kingdom of Tonga.

For Ross this was his first international blue water voyage but he was comforted by the fact that he was traveling in convoy with Brian Gordon and his crew on board Waverley, which had traveled to the Pacific Islands on six previous trips.

“It was also comforting to have an experienced crew on board Escapade as Joe had done the trip to Fiji twice, Darron had skippered his own vessel back from Australia and Robert is Escapade’s deckie and second skipper so he knows the boat from top to bottom,” Ross said.

“With our trusty Furuno radar, sounder and auto pilot running sweetly, 16 degrees water temperature and a speed of 7.5 knots, a two hour watch schedule was put in place.  At 7am the next day the crew had the lures in the water and to my surprise they were marlin lures, not tuna lures – serious stuff!

“On Wednesday morning the water temperature was up to 19.8 degrees and Joe landed our first mahi mahi, about five kilograms.  Waverley hadn’t even wet their lines as yet and some good humoured chatter took place over the VHF as a result.”

After four days and 800 nautical miles at sea, Escapade arrived at South Minerva where the crew wired up their cedar plugs and rapalas (tuna/trolling lures) and dropped them overboard with multi hook ups in depths of between 100 to 250 metres.

“The results were mostly wahoo between 15 to 35 kilograms with some smallish yellowfin among them.  There was plenty of action and this kept the crew busy as they continually hooked up and released the fish.  After two hours of super hot fishing, the crew had had enough, that’s how full on the fishing was,” Ross said.

“As we entered the lagoon of this figure eight shaped coral atoll, we were amazed by the clarity of the water at 23.5 degrees.  The depth inside the lagoon ranged between 15 to 20 metres and with some bombies (coral heads) which were easily spotted and avoided.

“The anchorage was great.  The lagoon is about three miles wide and six miles long and offers excellent shelter from all weather except cyclones.  It was a real buzz to be there.  At low tide you can walk on top of the reef and explore it.  There are several holes which have formed – just get in a hole and you may find a crayfish or four.”

Strong, gusty north-westerly winds of 30 to 35 knots prevented Escapade from leaving South Minerva reef so they stayed an extra night before making the 20 mile voyage to North Minerva.

“Inside this reef we came across several Tongan vessels with free divers collecting giant clams and sea cucumbers for a lucrative Chinese market.  The divers wanted to trade some of these for cigarettes.

“The next morning we said goodbye to Waverley as they headed to Fiji.  Escapade pointed her bow for Tongatapu, some 260 nautical miles away, with a detour to the east for some interesting sea mounts with thoughts of marlin in our minds.

“That afternoon Robert angled our first marlin which was released, estimated to be between 280 to 300 kilograms.”

After 7.4 days under power, 2.46 litres of diesel per nautical mile over 1259 nautical miles, Escapade, had arrived at Tongatapu where Denise and Joe’s partner, Rebecca, were waiting to welcome the crew.

“In a jovial mood we had a relaxed and very social night discussing our voyage and our memories of the trip with the highlights we experienced – no cruise ship would ever take it’s sightseers to the remote marvels of the Minerva Reef,” Ross said.

Darron and Robert flew home to New Zealand while Denise, Ross, Joe and Rebecca stayed a further two days at Tongatapu before leaving for the Ha’apai group of islands on their way to Vava’u.

“The Ha’apai group of islands are very picturesque, lots of small islands with white sandy beaches and most of these are surrounded by coral reefs that need to be carefully negotiated in good daylight.

“The water was very clear and with a crew member on the bow it was easy to spot any bombies.

“Rebecca caught her very first marlin and a blue marlin at that, estimated at 70 kilograms.  Joe also hooked up on a blue marlin which was estimated at 250 kilograms and both these fish were released.  We spent three days in and around the Ha’apai group on our way to Vava’u.”

Escapade arrived at Vava’u on June 7 where Ross and Denise met up with some friends who they fished with three years earlier at Vava’u.

They enjoyed plenty of great marlin fishing with Denise landing a 214.5 kilogram blue marlin.

“She didn’t stop smiling for at least a week,” Ross said.

“We believe Vava’u, Tonga is the best fishing destination, it’s a boaties dream.  A lot of yachties go there as well because the anchorages are very good.  It’s our favourite cruising destination, it’s pretty special.

“We spent four-and-a-half months on board but we had all the home comforts.  It was a pleasure.

“It was peaceful, especially when the weather was nice.  We had a few days when we had only five knots of wind. 

“None of us were fearful because with Riviera, we all agree we have a good, tough, sea boat.”

On August 6, Escapade joined the search and rescue crew assisting the New Zealand Airforce Orion aircraft following the sinking of passenger ferry, Princess Ashika.

“We were 140 miles away from the sinking site so we offered the boat,” he said.

“The Orion gave us co-ordinates of debris and a search pattern to follow but unfortunately it was only debris and two life jackets that we found.  We called off our search as dusk approached and the Orion was returning to land for the night.  There was too much debris in the water for us to continue in the dark safely without Orion’s eyes from the air to warn in advance of objects they could see that were semi submerged.

“The sinking of the ferry was a very tragic event and there were many families on the island that had lost family members.  It was a time of great sadness. “

On September 2, Escapade, responded to a May Day call about 23 nautical miles away.

“The sea conditions were not nice and after seven hours we towed a Spanish yacht that had its rudder fall off back to the safety of Neiafu harbour,” he said.

The Vava’u Yachting Regatta and the Governor’s Cup Race was held on the weekend of September 5 and Escapade had the honour of being the committee boat.

“It was a great weekend with a full moon party on a small island on the Saturday night after the yacht race.

“Sunday morning we were called up by another vessel to ask for our assistance as someone had accidentally partially severed their finger when a hatch slammed shut on his hand.  As we had the speed to get the person back quickly and because there was a doctor/surgeon on another vessel in Neiafu harbour that could stitch the finger back into place if too much time did not elapse.  We took off at speed with the victim and his hand wrapped in ice.  His finger was repaired successfully as we caught up with him a week after his accident.”

Escapade competed in the four day Vava’u International Billfish Tournament on September 18 where they placed third overall.

“On September 25 we left Vava’u and headed south towards Tongatapu via the islands of Latte-Kao and Tofua which was letting off steam as it is an active volcano.

“While we were tied up to the wharf at Tongatapu waiting for the fuel truck to arrive we got a phone call on Denise’s mobile warning us that Samoa had been hit by a tsunami so as a precaution we headed out into deeper water as Tonga also had tsunami warning in place but this was lifted at midday.

“We began our journey to North Minerva where we met up with Waverley again for the trip back to New Zealand.”

Ross said the return trip south was similar to the trip north with plenty of good angling.

Escapade arrived into Marsden Cove on Friday October 9 to clear Customs and then on to Whitianga to arrive at 4.30pm with showery weather, a lumpy sea and water temperature of 15 degrees.

“Heading north we had 10 to 20 knots south westerly most of the way but heading south it was mostly southerly with two days of 20 to 25 knots on the nose which was a bit uncomfortable but at no time frightening.

“We used more fuel on the way home – 2.7 litres per nautical mile compared to 2.46 litres per nautical mile on the way up.  The worst weather was between Marsden Cove and Whitianga.”

When embarking on a blue water voyage, Ross said it was important to have a lot of respect for the sea and keep a close eye on the weather forecasts.

“You must plan your trip and plan it well in advance and have a good crew on board, that’s really important because you don’t want to have anybody on board who is a liability.  And you have to have a good tough boat,” he said.

“The trip started off as a dream but with careful planning we fulfilled the dream.  Just being over there away from the New Zealand winter and catching marlin nearly every day was a dream come true but it hasn’t satisfied our appetite because we want to do it again.”

Ross has many great memories and experiences from his first ocean voyage and he and Denise plan to go back to Vava’u in May 2011 for five months to escape the New Zealand winter.

You can read Ross’s account of his voyage by visiting http://www.islandcruise.co.nz/ and click on ‘Fishing Report’.

 

 

 

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Click to enlarge image: Sunrise aproach to South Minerva

Sunrise aproach to South Minerva


A lovely beach on the main island of Vava'u

A lovely beach on the main island of Vava'u


Denise with a good sized spearfish

Denise with a good sized spearfish


Hunga lagoon

Hunga lagoon


Humpback whale

Humpback whale


Yachts in the harbour at Neiafu, Vava'u. Neiafu is the main town on the island and lots of bars and cafes along the harbour waterfront area

Yachts in the harbour at Neiafu, Vava'u. Neiafu is the main town on the island and lots of bars and cafes along the harbour waterfront area


Darren Tongatapu

Darren Tongatapu


Robert's best wahoo

Robert's best wahoo


Neiafu harbour, Vava'u

Neiafu harbour, Vava'u


Denise with a mahi mahi estimate 15 kilograms

Denise with a mahi mahi estimate 15 kilograms


Friget bird

Friget bird


Chris with a spearfish estimate 35 kilograms

Chris with a spearfish estimate 35 kilograms


South Minerva 24 May 2009

South Minerva 24 May 2009


Ports of Authority office in Tongatapu

Ports of Authority office in Tongatapu


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