At 10:00 a.m. on 6 July 1962 we (the crew) of the Tuaikaepau "signed on " at one of the government's offices. This at the time was the usual procedure, to sign on as part of the government's policy in recording who travelled out of the country. Our crew: Tevita Fifita, captain; myself(Fine Feuiaki),Engineer; Ve'etutu Pahulu, Mate and 14 others. In all, there were 17 of us.
After we signed on , we headed to Faua Warf. This was a wharf built by the Americans during the World War II. We were getting things ready for the voyage and everyone was looking forward for this trip. It was about 3:00 p.m. that things were organised and we headed toward the deep ocean on our way to New Zealand. ( during this period in Tonga the link between Tonga and New Zealand was mainly by sea, therefore Tuaikaepau played a vital part in transportation).
The weather was near perfect for sailing. The engine was running and the sail was also used to give the ship maximum speed. At about 7:00 a.m we called in at an island called 'Ata. Without anchoring, our ship was allowed to be drifted by the slow currents around the island. The captain ordered me and four others to take the life boat and go to the island and prepare some food. ('umu or earth oven is still use in Tonga as the major method of cooking. Tongan communities all over the world still practise this way of cooking . This is similar to The New Zealand Maori's hangi or Fijian lovo).
'Ata is a volcanic island to the south of Tongatapu(the mainland in the Tongan group). As we rowed towards the island, which is surrounded by reefs, it was here that our first encounter with tragedy began. A big wave broke out smashing the life boat onto one of the reefs. The impact was so severe that the prow of the boat split.
On the spur of the moment, I yelled for help. I called the Captain to bring some life saving gear(swimming gear) for the other four as they were not good swimmers (very unusual for Tongans not to be good swimmers). Sateki swam to the reef bringing with him the swimming gears. With the aid of the swimming gears, we all swam back to the Tuaikaepau, towing the lifeboat.
After pulling the life boat on board, we went fishing around a very big rock outcrop standing out of the water on the west of 'Ata. This rock is as high as the island. Between this rock and 'Ata lay a very deep strip of seawater, ideal for for fishing. We caught two big fish out out 27 that we should have caught. Twenty fish were on the hooks but they managed to get away just as we were about to grab them.
At 5:00 p.m we left 'Ata, a southerly breeze was blowing at us. It slowly got windy and as a result of that, the sea got rough. The wind velocity made it almost impossible for the engine to push the boat against this very strong wind. To keep us moving at a faster speed we had to use the sail as well. However, due to the direction of the wind, we had to employ tacking tactics if we were to make headway towards our destination. Because the wind was coming from the south, we used the bearing S x W.
By 7:00 p.m the strength of the wind had increased dramatically and the sea got really rough. This forced us to turn the engine off. We used the sail for a little while and had to fold up most of it due to the very strong wind bombarding us.
On Saturday morning , July 9 the weather had not improved. The rough seas brought large waves breaking on board. There was water everywhere on board of our ship. Everyone started to panic. There was nothing to be seen in the sky but very dark clouds that flooded us with rain drops. We were still doing our periodical tacking but the sheer stregth of the wind accelerated the ship too fast to be properly controlled.
The storm , together with the dark sky, definitely enabled the Captain to mis-calculate our position (knowing the Captain as a man of execeptional navigational skills and vast experience, it would take something extraordinary to affect him, also we have made many trips back and forth through these waters). It was about 9:00 p.m and just before our next tack when the two crews on duty(steering) yelled out, "Tevita Fifita - a reef!" We all rushed out of our cabins only to find our ship landed on the reef.
This was the start of what had to become a major memorable part of my life(Up to this day the memory of that first contact with Minerva Reef is still ringing in my ears). Tevita Fifita knew that we were in trouble and ordered everyone to remain calm and try to hold on to the mast of the ship (a difficult proposition uder the circumstances as there were 17 of us). As I can remember, it was so uncomfortable and terrifying as the wind was still blowing strongly, the rain slashing our faces and we were surrounded by darkness. It was also very cold.
By about mid-night the ship had completely disintergrated into pieces by the fearce force of the waves breaking everywhere on this vast and mighty reef. At the time the tide was still high. We decided to collect most of the floating pieces of timber from the wreckage as they were scattered by the forces of nature. The pieces that were retrieved were tied together before tying the whole bundle to a rock for anchorage.
As we were stranded on the reef awaiting daylight, I thought that not one one was not contemplating dying. Throughout the night, I honestly believed that the cold wind, water splashing on us, and the fear of what might happen to us, would overpower everyone's will to survive.
It was probably 4 or 5 in the morning when Ve'etutu, in almost a whispering fashion said to me . " How do you feel?" I replied almost instantly. "I do not think I am going to die. I do not feel like dying." I now think of I said at the time and realise how optimistic I was. Especially, considering what we had to go through.
Still dark, and on the reef, almost everyone was wondering what the reef was like. I use the word almost, because the captain was probably the only one that knew the name this reef. The moment we struck the reef Tevita Fifita knew without any doubt that it was Minerva Reef but waited for someone to ask. When asked about the name of the reef, Tevita without hesitation said, "Minerva Reef."
At dawn on Sunday morning, two of the crews yelled out, "An island", "an island in that direction " (pointing to where they thought the island was). Tevita quickly diffused any confusion or false hopes by declaring, "No, there is no island anywhere near this place, it must be another boat stranded as we are on the reef."
As more daylight appeared we could see that (the so called island pointed by the two crew members) was in fact a sunken ship and not an island as we would have dearly liked it to be. Tevita sent two crews to check out the sunken ship. We were wondering whether it would be possible for shelter while waiting for any search or rescue mission by the Government of Tonga. The ship was about a mile from where we landed on the reef.
It was now low tide, everyone was relieved to have a walk around stretching their legs and muscles. The two crews came back with the good news that the ship was still in good condition inside, suitable for shelter. It was probaly a Japanese fishing ship that suffered the same tragedy as ours. Tevita and most of the crews went to the ship while three others and myself waited for hide tide (which was on its way) so that we could drag the bundles of timber gathered from our ship to our new shelter. Orignally, the idea behind collecting the timber was to build a small kind of fishing raft or for any other useful purpose. I was even thinking of building perhaps a small raft or boat so that some of us might go back to Tonga and get help (this reflects my optimism at this time of crisis).
At high tide we headed towards the Japanese wreck and tied the bundles of timber pieces of the Tuaikaepau to the wreck(Japanese ship) We got to the wreck at about 12:30 p.m and still suffered from the cold. All we had on were shorts and shirts which were wet all night and morning till about 12:30 p.m. We therefore went up quickly to the deck to lie in the hot sun for it was a nice sunny afternoon despite the strong wind. We fell asleep for a while until Tevita woke us up and it was now low tide. He instructed us to return to where we struck the reef and search for any of our Tongan food supply that we had on board and to search for our tool box. There was no sign of the tool box. All we found were a few taro and a pair of binoculars. By the time we arrived back at shelter, Tevita Fifita had already drawn up a calendar starting from the day we landed on the reef up to December of 1962. The day Tevita drew up the calendar was Sunday, July 10.
The next morning after our morning prayer (praying became a daily routine), I wandered around the ship just for a look around. It was still high tide and the ship was being rocked by the sea waves on the reef. While looking around, I came across a board at the entrance to the cabin. Written on the board were details of how the Japanese ship landed on Minerva reef on September, 29 1959.
At low tide, I took a few of the crews on a fishing trip. We caught plenty of fish, shellfish and lobsters. Only then did we realize the abundance of seafood on the reef (at least for the time being ,food was not going to be a problem). On arrival back from our fishing venture, we were so lucky to find a box of matches inside the ship. A fire was started and cooking of our evening meal proceeded.
The success of our fishing trip, meant that fishing was assigned to be my daily job. I accepdted my job with no objection as I did not want to let the Captain down. This job, to me was in my favour due my background. Fishing was a part of my childhood while living in the islands of Ha'apai (Fakakakai is the island where I grew up).
July went by, so did August and still there was no sign of any search by the Government of Tonga. Depressed and confused,that Tevita thendecided that we had to face reality (the government of Tonga does not have the facilities to send out any search party) and do something to get us back home. The Captain ordered that a small boat be built. The idea was to go to Fiji and seek help. Fiji was now our aim for the rescue mission. Originally the crew for this rescue mission was the Captain, the Mate and myself. Any hope of survival would depend very much on us, the crew for the rescue mission.
Everyone was enthusiatic and all helped in building the boat. Tevita Uaisele (the Tuaikaepau carpenter) was assigned the leader of boat construction. The boat was built mainly from timbers obtained from the deck of the Japanese wreck. It was during September, we were well on the way in building the boat. It was during this month that we experienced the reality of what would happen to all of us. Fatai Efiafi passed away making him the first one to leave us. A traditional burial ceremony in honour of Fatai was carried out on the reef. This was a terrible loss and had a devastating impact on everyone's morale. Before Fatai died , all of us were still optimistic about getting back home alive. This affected everyone and self-doubt started to creep in. Now, most of us wondered whether we would ever get back home.
From September onwards, our fire was kept going non-stop and this was due to the fact that we had no matches left. A "roster" was drawn up for everyone to take turn in looking after the fire. We were so lucky that the Japanese left a big boiler in the wreck. It was used for cooking as well as steaming(condensing) the sea water for our drinking water.
In building the boat, there were no tools but only a chisel found in the wreck. One can imagine how difficult our job was. The timbers were often too long and to get the desired length, they had to be cut . To do this, timbers had to be burned until desired lengths were obtained. My major job in building the boat was to patch the boat up with putty found in the wreck. I still think that the putty found in the wreck was a major factor in making the building of the boat possible. A raft however, would have been an alternative if there had been no putty.