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The Strange Reality and Obese Myths of Minerva Reef

Wild Card is currently anchored at 23 degrees 38 minutes South and 178 degrees 53 minutes West at Minerva Reef in the sou’west Pacific. It is an atoll. By that I mean I’m surrounded by reef and there is no land-above-water. It is confusing, I’ll admit. It is, for all intents and purpose, a hole in the ocean… sort of a protected lake of peace in the middle of a wild, tradewind-swept sea.

There are no people. Let’s put it another way: everyone likes me here.

There was, of course, land here at one point—but that was a long time ago even in geological time. How does an island get to be an island… and still have no land? Or, more precisely, how does an atoll get to be an atoll? Why is the Pacific Ocean studded with ‘arcs’ or ‘chains’ of islands?

Okay. I’ll tell you, but you gotta bear with me. I ain’t no scientist—just a salt-stained sailor with my ear to the ground… well, reef, in this case.

Everybody knows that volcanos erupt, like, big-time! KAPOW, to the max! This blows a big hole in the earth’s crust and often makes islands in the sea. And coconuts wash up on these islands, passing birds land to nest, and—the next thing you know, you’ve got Honolulu!

But there’s friction. And things wear away. Plus, many condos are built like crap. Anyway, our island eventually wears away… every gust of wind and drop of water erodes it until… it wears away to nothing. So, at this point you end up with a mountain which USED to stick out of the water, but does not any longer.

Now the funny thing is, the earth’s crust moves. This is called continental drift. It isn’t fast. Why, our stodgy 38 foot cutter Wild Card is faster… even upwind! But, over time, the earth’s crust moves. So the volcano which blew a hole in it… isn’t in the same place when it blows ANOTHER hole in it!!!

This is why, while peering at a globe, you often see ‘arcs’ of islands and ‘chains’ of dots… new islands in different places made from the same volcano. (Boy, I gotta spend a lotta time in sailor’s bars listening to drunks ramble incoherently to piece this weird ‘pseudo-science’ stuff together for you!)

Even curiouser, when the crust moves on… it creates a kind of empty hole where the volcano used to me… and, thus, the heavy islands begins to sink back into it.

That’s right: Mount Everest can be pictured as a sort of ‘wave’ of stone (actually, part of the moving earth’s crust which is colliding) which rises and sinks.

Currently it is sinking so modern mountain climbers have to hop or bring a step ladder with them if they actually want to get as ‘high’ as Sir Edmond Hillary did. (I’m spending a lot of time in NZ and Sir Hillary is sort of a Kiwi demi-God here… not as saint-like as Bob Marley, but close!)

How do I get off on these crazy tangents?

Anyway, a volcano blows a hole in the crust, the crust moves over a vacant area, and, thus, begins to sink.

This could be the end-of-the-story: flat-topped island sinks. Big deal! But, hey, wait… THERE’S MORE!

That’s right. In certain tropical places, the frothing edges of the island grow a reef… and, GREAT NEWS, the reef grows faster than the island sinks!

That’s an atoll. And that’s why I’m always letting out more scoop, the longer I stay. ("I don’t think it is sinking that fast," says my wife Carolyn, but, hey, what does she know? Is she a geo-ol-o-gist? I mean, if she’s so smart… why did she marry a notorious fool? I play it safe… PLENTY of scope on an atoll!)

There are actually two atolls here, which are about ten miles apart. We’re anchored in North Minerva, in 46 feet (and growing) of water.  At high tide, there’s no land visible… just a massive breaking reef for as far as the eye can see.

Now the reef is pretty much circular and 360 degrees- but seawater slops into its bowl with every wave- and thus it usually ‘blows’ or erodes a hole in the reef to let the water out. This ‘hole’ or pass or entrance is usually on the leeward side of the trades, nice for us yachties!

The current continuously flows out of this pass, sometimes strong and sometimes weak. Lazy sharks gather here and check out the passing seafood display. If anything looks particularly tasty they might drop a jaw and scoop it up… but there’s no rush as this swirling aqua Lazy-Susan never stops.

This is a great place to photograph man-eating sharks—but I can’t seem to convince my wife. "Honey," I keep explaining patiently to her as I thrust our expensive underwater camera housing in her direction, "just listen to the name, dear… I mean, you chicks are perfectly safe!")

Oh, dear. Another tangent!

Anyway, an atoll is hard to see if you are above the water… which is where most good boats are. Thus they are easy to hit. People hit ’em regularly. For a long time, they didn’t know there were TWO atolls here, North AND South Minerva… and thus many vessels were lost on one while prudently skirting the other!

The bad news is that giant ships, small yachts and medium-sized planes have all crashed into Minerva-but the good news is that it is self-cleaning! That’s right, the normal twelve foot waves which pound it occasionally turn into nasty thirty-plus footers… and nothing lasts for long under those savage wet-sledge-hammer conditions. I mean, mankind thinks he’s pretty hot-stuff—and he is in the sense he may KILL the ocean but he isn’t in the sense he’ll never tame it—where was I? Ah, yes, Minerva Reef quickly shreds everything which mankind brings to it.

One year a large freighter smashes into it… soon its plates are beginning to wave—and then, poof, it is gone.

Nice, eh?

Yes, it is a pretty spooky place. We’ve been here more than a week and we still whisper while on deck… so the reef doesn’t hear.

Other yachties aren’t quite so… sensitive. Canadian Ken off-loaded his Brompton folding bicycle-and did the ‘Tour de Minerva’ for about fifty yards… before falling into a hole so large the lobsters jumped out.

("Damn," he mused later, "If I’da knowed the bugs where THAT big I’d a brought a saddle!") Another boat crew lugged their clubs ashore and shot a round of golf. "I hate the sand-traps and the water hazards… and the greens are incredibly slippery too," complained one of the golfers, proving some eco-terrorist boaters are NEVER happy.

Me, I don’t mess with the reef in hopes it won’t mess with me. Many days we’re completely alone here. At low tide the anchorage is a mill pond, at high tide it is like being anchored in a washing machine set on agitate.

"…shall we head ashore tonight for a drink at the Minerva Yacht Club?" I often ask Carolyn and she refuses politely by saying silly stuff like, "…not until they get a bigger dinghy dock… this one is too crowded during happy hour!"

Over the Pacific-wide SSB nets I tell the incoming newbies flooding westward from French Polynesia, "Yes, I own the Starbucks on South Minerva… we had the Mickey D franchise on the north island until… well, parking because such a problem!"

"Do you think we’re going nuts," my wife asked me recently, daintily wiping up some drool from my grey-bearded chin as she did so.

"I doubt it," I relied. "I mean, if you’re still asking the question we’re probably okay."

Still, Minerva is a strange place. Nobody bats an ear as I tell ’em about our daily Concorde landings (where do you think those graceful, expensive Froggy planes went?) and/or the crowds who are already arriving for the Coronation of His Royal Jelly Roll… King Fat!

"…are you sure we’re not nuts," queries Carolyn.

"My queen, my queen…" I rant back her in reassurance—which somehow, I’ll admit, doesn’t seem to.

Editor’s note: Fatty and Carolyn have finally found a place where it is difficult for them to wear out their welcome!

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