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American yacht sailing to Tonga

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

July 4, 2020, Sailing Zatara was located about 418km south southwest of Minerva Reefs.

An American sailing yacht that was denied entry to Tonga is heading to Tongan territory anyway, expecting to anchor at Minerva Reef (Tele ki Tonga and Tele ki Tokelau) tomorrow, Sunday July 5. Tonga's patrol boat VOEA Neiafu is currently at Minerva Reef, the HMAF Navy confirmed today.

The ‘Sailing Zatara’ a Privilege 585 Catamaran carrying a family of five, left New Zealand's Marsen Cove on June 29 and published a video log saying they were headed to Minerva Reef where they intended to stay for a couple of weeks.

However, Tonga's borders are closed under CoViD-19 restrictions, and the crew of the ‘Sailing Zatara’ already know this.

Cruise ship diversions began in February, and then under a Public Health Emergency Order all international cruise ships and yachts scheduled to arrive in Tonga were barred indefinitely from March 17.

This morning satellite imaging showed the catamaran currently tracking towards Minerva, and located about 418kms to the south southwest.

The approaching vessel was reported by a Matangi Tonga Online reader in Vava'u, who said lots of yachts are waiting to track through Tongan waters when the border diversions are eased.

He was watching activities on a video log posted by adventurer Keith Whitaker and his family on 'Sailing Zatara'.

“It seems like they intentionally neglected border closure measures in place for Tonga waters.

“I'm concerned about these guys,” he said. “They are ignoring it and they think Tonga will do nothing.”

Tongan Navy

Lt. Commander Siua ‘Ika, at HMAF Touliki Navy Base told Matangi Tonga this afternoon that the patrol boat VOEA Neiafu was currently at Minerva Reef, and they had not sighted the yacht today.

“Our patrol boat is already there,” he said. “It is part of our primary role to defend our maritime areas.”

Minerva, named Teleki Tonga and Teleki Tokelau, is part of the HMAF regular patrol operations, and Tonga regards the reefs as part of its territory even though they are outside the official EEZ. HMAF maintains a navigational beacon there.

“It comes under our Fisheries Act as a Special Management Area,” he said.

The navy officer said that Tonga offers a safe haven for yachts at Minerva “depending on the weather” and yacht crews may collect food for themselves there.

However, they did not know that the ‘Sailing Zatara’ was intending to come to Minerva this weekend, until Matangi Tonga asked for comment.

“The vessel may stay only while the patrol boat is there, and when the patrol boat leaves, they must leave,” he said.

Not granted entry

The Whitakers are Texans who sailed from Florida to New Zealand last year, and in March contacted the Ministry of Health about coming to Tonga.

On March 18 Keith Whitaker was informed by Tonga's Minister of Health Dr ‘Amelia Afuha’amango Tu’ipulotu: “Please note that you are not granted entry to Tonga sea areas – all private sail boats will not be granted entry to the Kingdom until further notice.”

Whitaker posted a screenshot of this email onto his social media.

The yacht makes lifestyle videos of its sailing adventures for its YouTube channel. It had over 88,000 views of its latest vlog on July 3, where the captain figures out how to check out of New Zealand, while under CoViD-19 restrictions.

A New Zealand Customs official tells Whitaker that provided they do not have any illnesses, there is a declaration to be made around their health status, saying: “The important question is where are you intending to go, and can you get into that port? That the country will permit you to go in there.”

Whitaker tells Customs, “Well, obviously, I can go to any American Port, because I'm an American, .... we can stay at sea a long time.”

The Whitakers tell their viewers that they didn't want to winter over in New Zealand because they would have nothing interesting to film on the boat and were trying to figure out how to get into Fiji.

On June 23, Whitaker reported on his vlog: “Now with all this going on we don't know if we can get into Fiji. We are leaving. We are going to Minerva Reef. We are going to camp out there for a week or two and we may end up in Guam, Tonga, Fiji, American Samoa, we don’t know where we are going to end up at the end of the day.”

While the Whitakers have attracted tens of thousands of admiring followers on their travel logs, one New Zealander commented that Keith Whitaker was “unbelievable ...arrogance on wheels” because he filmed himself driving while talking on a cellphone and openly flouting New Zealand laws.

The 'Sailing Zatara' is expected to arrive off Tele ki Tonga and Tele ki Tokelau tomorrow.

The Sailing Zatara's position at Tele ki Tokelau late on July 4, 2020

Tele ki Tonga and Tele ki Tokelau

The reefs areas were declared Special Management Areas by Tonga (reserved for local fishing vessels only) due to their pristine coral reefs, high shark densities and healthy stocks of giant clams. The Special Management Area was proclaimed for 12nm from Tele ki Tonga and Tele ki Tokelau. Corals and multiple species supported by coral reefs (clams, sharks) are protected under the Fisheries Management Act 2002 and Environment Management Act 2010. Sharks are afforded additional protection under the Tonga National Plan of Action for Sharks 2014–2016.

- By Mary Lyn Fonua


Thank you for highlighting the poor choices and behavior of the US flagged vessel Zatara. Please know that they are not typical Americans. Many fellow cruisers are unhappy with their choice to wilfully disregard Tonga’s closed borders. We loved our time in Tonga and will return someday. Please keep us informed of any updates. -The crew of SV Beach Flea,

Interested to see that Tongan Coast Guard forced a NZ yacht to leave Minerva Reef. The Zatara was permitted to stay. The real question is why the Tongan Coast Guard believes they have authority to have flagged ships of other nations leave what is at best Exclusive Economic Zone ("EEZ"), when these ships are not heading to Tonga, or engaging in economic activity. Minerva Reef isn't an island (disappears at high tide) isn't withing Tongan territorial waters (12 mile limit), and taking these actions in an EEZ appears to be a violation of the UN Convention?

With all due respect, what is going on Tonga?