COVID-19: American sailing family denied entry to Tonga after leaving NZ's 'cold' winter

A sailing family from the US who left the "cold" New Zealand winter for the South Pacific have been denied entry into Tonga due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The Whitaker family gave up their corporate life in Texas in 2016 to circumnavigate the globe on their Privilege 585 Catamaran when the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020.

The family of six, who make money off their Youtube channel Sailing Zatara, had been docked in Whangarei but decided they wanted to leave for the Pacific Islands.

"Eww, it's cold, it's winter. There's not going to be a lot of adventure. We're not travelling, we're just living on a boat," mum Renee said.

"If we stay in New Zealand we probably won't put videos out because there's really nothing to film and who wants to watch a family living on a boat doing nothing but school and living life like normal?"

The Whitakers decided to leave Aotearoa for the Minerva Reef on June 29, despite earlier being denied entry in March by Tonga's Minister of Health.

The island nation's borders have been closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, with cruise ships and yachts barred indefinitely.

On Monday the family said in an update to their website they have been stopped by a naval patrol vessel and will be unable to enter Tonga.

"We decided to stop in Minerva before continuing on to our next destination to wait out some weather," they wrote.

"We checked in 12 miles outside with the Tongan Navy and got permission to stay over until the next weather window which is looking like Thursday. They were super nice and professional and we had a very good chat over the radio."

HMAF naval chief Lt Commander Siua 'Ika told Matangi Tonga news the patrol boat VOEA Neiafu was patrolling Minerva Reef.

He said Tonga offered a safe haven for yachts at Minerva when the weather deteriorated but was not initially aware Zatara was heading their way.

Local news outlet Matangi Tonga said the Whitaker family boat had been reported by a reader in Vava'u who said there were lots of yachts waiting on the coasts for Tongan border restrictions to ease.

"It seems like they intentionally neglected border closure measures in place for Tonga waters," he said.

"I'm concerned about these guys. They are ignoring it and they think Tonga will do nothing."

The family have not said where they plan to sail to next but their satellite map shows them currently at the reef waiting for conditions to improve.