November 2000 : A slow beat to New Zealand



Greetings from Perdika now in Auckland - which will be our home for the next few months.

The weather for the passage down to New Zealand from the Pacific Islands has something of a reputation for its unpredictability – not to mention its severity. The basic principle is to leave the tropics before the six month cyclone season gets under way in November, whilst at the same time avoiding arrival in New Zealand before the last of their spring storms. During most of our four weeks in Fiji we had at least one eye on the forecasts, trying to gain some understanding of the weather patterns, to enable us to decide on exactly the right moment to make our departure. There are almost too many sources of weather information for this passage, which became virtually the sole topic of conversation between yachties. The much larger ‘fleet’ in Tonga, which we could hear on the radio, built up a quite unhealthy state of obsessive anxiety and agonising about when to depart south and we were glad not to be there. Forecasts came in all shapes and sizes – professional and amateur, long and short term. One very prominent source came from the ‘guru’ Bob MacDavitt of the New Zealand Met. Service, who provides five day forecasts for the passage by email to anyone who asks him every week, and also an individual customised routing service for those who care to pay for it. Bob’s language is all about ‘bombs’, ‘crush zones’ and suchlike – and therefore not a great source of comfort. At the other end of the scale were the predictions of various amateur meteorologists among the yachting population. Perhaps the most down to earth was the advice given each day by Des on ‘Russell Radio’ – an experienced old salt who operates a daily radio check-in service for yachts making the passage to New Zealand. Extremely sceptical of long range forecasting, he made a point of never predicting more that 24 hours ahead, on the basis of several weather faxes obtained daily. Some of the scariest information came from listening in to the experiences of boats already embarked on the trip, as they checked in with Des on the radio. We would hear of boats having started out in perfect conditions for a fast trip, getting clobbered later by depressions streaking eastwards from Australia like exocets. The most miserable incident we heard of was the experience of Ingrid, an American yacht which left Tonga bound for New Zealand. 500 miles off New Zealand, news came in of an approaching low. To avoid this, Ingrid reversed course, and headed back towards Minerva Reef - 300 miles back north. On arrival, their engine failed, but with good wind they decided to sail to Fiji for repairs – whereupon the wind died. They arrived in Fiji – 12 days after having left Tonga - the day before we left. We met the skipper and his girlfriend – whose previous experience of sailing had been six hours! We began to feel that the quest for the perfect weather window for the passage was futile and decided not to hang around waiting for the mythical perfect moment. It was becoming swelteringly hot in Fiji, so as soon as we had the boat ready for the passage, off we set.

Our wisdom and experience in these matters were suitably rewarded - by a passage of 1060 miles into headwinds! Every day the forecast seemed to be indicating that the wind would go round ‘the day after tomorrow’. However, for all but the first of the 12 days it took us, every wind was stubbornly in the southern sector – for a passage due south-south-west – giving us the choice of sailing rather slowly east or west. We usually expect to make 120-130 miles a day and all in the right direction. Our daily average for this passage was only 108 miles, and many of these more towards Australia or Chile than New Zealand! On our worst day we travelled 74 miles, but only 42 of them closer to our destination - daunting on a passage of that length. It was hard work. Added to this, there was the constant underlying possibility of a gale taking off from the Australian coast heading straight for us. Conflicting forecasts abounded, causing something of an emotional rollercoaster. It seems that New Zealand is surrounded by a field of heavy weather which sooner or later has to be fought through – as if to prove one’s credentials to be there. Our inevitable clobbering, when it came was relatively minor – about 36 hours of 25-30 knots hard into the wind culminating in a night of squalls giving sustained bursts of 35 knots. For the first time ever we got our storm gib out, although in the event, conditions didn’t worsen enough to use it. It was stressful but also quite exhilarating. We might have felt cheated not to have experienced any heavy weather at all!

It was not all bad. The weather – apart from wind direction and noticeably chillier temperatures as we moved south – was lovely. Sunny and fresh with hardly a drop of rain. We started just before a full moon and so enjoyed beautiful bright night-time sailing. The engine, with far more than its average use, ran perfectly after all Chris’ ministrations in Fiji. There were the usual landmarks – a quarter-way there, half-way there, and then out of the tropics (for the first time in a whole year) and most excitingly - our half-circumnavigation – or it would have been, had this not occurred in the dead of night. It was also, like our other long passages, very sociable with plenty of radio chatter to mates. The little group which had been together right across the Pacific had split up – An Cala did not go to Fiji but set off to New Zealand from Tonga. Vagabond and Anita 2 were in Fiji with us, but then departed for Australia. By coincidence however, we were all on passage at the same time and so able to compare conditions. It was a great comfort to know that others were having the same sort of hard time as ourselves! Our daily check-ins with Russell Radio were also a great source of encouragement.

We eventually made landfall in Opua, after the best 18 hours of sailing of the whole passage – in a flat sea and an almost decent wind. The Bay of Islands, about 120 miles north of Auckland is quite lovely – scenery rather like Scotland and not a palm tree in sight! It must be said that the temperature is also rather Scottish, but the morning of our arrival was sunny and beautiful. The procedures for clearing into New Zealand – carried out in a very friendly manner - were the most rigorous we have ever experienced. The boat was checked thoroughly for anything remotely likely to destroy the New Zealand ecology. Eggs, onions, garlic and popcorn were confiscated, but our Pacific Island carvings and baskets were deemed bug-free. A bunch of kava roots were taken away for fumigation. A sniffer dog was standing by, but we aparently did not seem suspicious enough to warrant his attention. After the formalities, and safely esconced in a rather luxurious marina berth, we finally popped the champagne cork – amazed and thrilled to have arrived in New Zealand. The atmosphere in Opua among the cruising yachties arriving in day by day comparing experiences, reminded us of Barbados after the Atlantic crossing – a heady mixture of elation and relief.

After a few days chilling out in our new found luxury – western style showers, restaurant meals, laundry, etc. etc. - we began to get itchy feet again and so moved out into the Bay of Islands, anchoring off the little town of Russell – a romantic little spot – all white-boarded colonial houses, quaint little museum and New Zealand’s oldest church (1835). We also visited Waitangi – scene of the historic treaty. This was a most attractively presented exposition of events leading up to the treaty, together with the Treaty House, the Whare Runanga (Maori Meeting House) and Marae and a couple of Maori war canoes – all set in beautiful grounds – but unfortunately nothing about the subsequent fate of the treaty. We departed the Bay of Islands in a hailstorm, wending our way between the said islands and out through a tiny passage. From there we took four days to make the 120 miles to Auckland, including a couple of nights in beautiful Great Barrier Island.

These first ten days or so in New Zealand have given us a great taste of the cruising we hope to do here later – but also reveal a certain nervousness about reaching our final destination of Auckland. Arriving here – in particular sailing under the Auckland Harbour Bridge – has been the focus of Chris’ dream for many years. Auckland has also been ‘where the buck stops’ – we have put off a million and one jobs until ‘we get to New Zealand’. Now we are here it all seems quite daunting and we hardly know where to start! However, we duly sailed under the bridge (and back again because the marina is on the seaward side!) and savoured the moment. Auckland has a stunning skyline – much of it new to Chris, and it all looks most exciting. We have received a great welcome from Chris’ New Zealand friends – and also from some of our Pacific cruising mates - and I am sure we’ll soon get our act together, learn how to be landlubbers again and work out exactly how we should spend the next five months or so. After 16 months and 15,377 miles of cruising, we definitely need a break!

This voyage has exceeded all expectations in very many ways. We have about 25 films of photographs to sort through to remind us of all the incredible places – and that’s just the Pacific. We have been very pleased with the boat – and hope she has been pleased with us! We have had wonderful companions. Our boat is named Perdika in memory of our first international cruising experience. With very little experience we had chartered a boat in Greece for a week and were cruising around the Saronic Gulf quite happily when, on arriving at the little fishing port of Perdika, a great storm blew up threatening all the boats in the harbour. There was a little group of yachts there – cruising boats from several nations - and the local fishermen were rather anxious about our safety. The co-operation and camaraderie amongst the crews of these yachts all helping each other in securing all the yachts as best possible was a most inspiring and romantic experience for us. The same co-operation and camaraderie among cruising boats has been a constant and very heart-warming feature of all these travels too.