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Video emerges of NZ yacht involved in tense dispute with Tonga's navy at reef used as safe haven

 Startling footage has emerged online of a tense dispute at sea between New Zealand sailing boat Windora and the Tongan navy at a reef traditionally used as a safe haven for yachts travelling through the Pacific. Tonga, which has closed its borders due to Covid-19 and claims Minerva Reef as its territory, sent its navy to see off any visiting boats. 

In their online blog Windora owners Phil and Lynda Christieson wrote of how they weren’t able to leave the reef because of strong winds but the navy threatened to forcibly remove them and sent a drone up to monitor them.

They said the NZ Rescue Centre had advised them to let off an emergency beacon (EPIRB) if needed so that was done and the New Zealand High Commission in Tonga then told them they could stay two more days. 

Lynda Christieson wrote, “After that, they left us alone, but stayed close by. It was all pretty awful. Next morning we woke to SE winds so left at daybreak, followed by the Navy until we were past South Minerva”. 

The standoff which happened early last month was captured by neighbouring yacht Zatara, enroute to Fiji from New Zealand, which had got permission from Tongan authorities to enter the reef before getting there. 

The Tongan patrol boat Neiafu can be heard telling the Windora it needs to leave as soon as possible. 

A voice believed to be Phil Christieson responds: “We will wait for the weather this is a wooden vessel that is 50 years old I’m the skipper, I’m the captain of this vessel it’s a New Zealand registered ship and I am in charge and I will not leave this anchorage until the weather is suitable, you hear me? I will not leave the anchorage until the weather is suitable”. 

The Tongan navy then says: “Do you realise this is Tongan territorial waters”, and Christieson says the last time he was at Minerva, Fiji was claiming it and so he isn’t sure who it belongs to. 

“It belongs to the Kingdom of Tonga,” is the reply. 

Christieson responds that New Zealand really likes Tonga and the navy replies “Tonga really likes New Zealand too!” 

However the conversation gets heated as  Christieson then says: “We are a 50-year-old wooden sailing vessel and I will wait until the conditions are suitable to go to New Zealand, is that clear?” 

“I'm afraid my order is to let you know that you have to leave as soon as possible … you have to leave now,” the navy replies. 

But Christieson refuses, “absolute negative we are not leaving now and negative we are not leaving, you understand, not leaving!” 

“I quite understand you very well but I am afraid I have to take necessary action to enforce Tongan territorial water. Tonga is under border closure at the moment,” is the response for the Neiafu. 

“I understand you are ordering us to sea and you are responsible for the vessel Windora and the lives on board, you are totally responsible for our lives you understand that?” 

The Windora was finally allowed to stay on and do repairs until the wind changed - and has since made it to the Bay of Islands. 

Tonga has claimed Minerva Reef - two submerged atolls - since the 1970s but Fiji is disputing ownership of the territory.


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