Hard to believe we’ve been in New Zealand for nearly six months. For the last six weeks we’ve been focused on preparing Batu and her crew for passagemaking once again.
In addition to boat projects, we’ve been carefully watching the weather patterns and trying to find a workable slot for our passage to Tahiti. One thing is for sure, the weather, and the forecasts, change quickly here. I keep hoping to find a good window and press “freeze frame,” but haven’t got that sorted yet. Nonetheless, with chilly temps and more frequent rains, the time to depart is approaching.
Perhaps our biggest stress in departing was selling our car, Fern. She was looking so good after her “for sale” wash & vacuum. Fern was so pleased with herself that she decided to take a slow moving dive into a fence and munch her front fender, a bit like a dog rolling in the first mud puddle (or worse) right after a bath. Anyhow, it took some sorting, but in the end, we managed to find a good home for her where she will be well appreciated. We loved her, but sadly, Fern was not a good financial investment in the end.
After weeks of searching for the perfect weather window, I’ve decided that, if it does exist, it certainly doesn’t last for a month. In the end, we’ve settled for what I think will at least be a workable one. Although a late-season tropical depression is swirling over Vanuatu about 1200nm north of us, the south pacific ridge has been rising to a latitude that, we hope, will give us decent winds. Since the forecasts beyond a few days out are merely fiction, I suppose we’ll just have to get what we get and not throw a fit. Fingers crossed. We plan to depart on Thursday, May 4, behind a small low.
Our dot’s on the move and, I am thankful because I love to sail. We hope to cover the 2250 – 2500nm passage in the next three to four weeks, and we’ll try to post updates once we arrive.
Following are some highlights from our driving tour of New Zealand’s South Island. For North Island Highlights, see our previous post, #36.
SOUTH ISLAND HIGHLIGHTS
Marlboro – Our South Island driving tour took us from the ferry landing at Picton, south and west through the Marlboro wine region and the Wairau Valley. Since wine tasting is not exactly a kid-oriented family activity, we simply enjoyed the scenery while driving through these wide open valleys, but it was not hard to notice mile after mile of lush vineyards and boutique wineries. Small, classy cafes and B&B’s dot the map here. I could imagine a romantic week spent touring this area in the right circumstances.
Hokitika – From the Marlboro region, we headed toward the scenic West coast towns of Westport, Greymouth and Hokitika. Here the narrow, mountainous road skirts the rugged, rocky coastline much like Northern California, except giant tree ferns, a bit like palm trees, pop up where they can grab a foothold. The views are staggering as the road marches southward toward the snow-capped Southern Alps towering in the distance. We enjoyed a roadside stop at the pancake rocks of Hokitika, where we saw arches and blowholes formed by the relentless seas acting on limestone layered like stacks of pancakes.
The Gates of Haast – Haast is a small, west coast town at the foot of the Southern Alps. We found this place notable for two things. First, Haast is home to the most aggressive sand flies anywhere in New Zealand. Having sampled nearly all of them, we can testify that this is no small achievement. Viscous, biting creatures, sand flies frequently leave large, itchy welts that can take a week or more to heal. Second, about 20km from the town itself are the Gates of Haast, a place where the road crosses a swift-moving mountain stream on one of New Zealand’s finest rickety one-lane bridges. The sheer scale of the rocks, the power and clarity of the running water made this one of our favorite stops.
Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers – These glaciers are beautiful, and easy for non-mountaineers to access. An moderate one-hour ‘bush walk’ from the car park brought us to the base of the Franz Joseph glacier. This was a unique opportunity to see the forces of the glacier working up close. The stratified blue ice field hung precariously above us, just 750m away. Turbulent water, tinted blue-gray by glacial ‘flour,’ cascaded all around us in a frigid run-off. Definitely worth a stop.
Wanaka – The quaint lakeside town of Wanaka was a turning point for us. Torrential rains and strong winds battered the North Island while we toured the South Island in relative peace. However, with the threat of wet, windy weather in the forecast, we decided to skip a visit to the scenic Milford Sound region and head straight for Christchurch. There’s nothing fun about packing up tents in the rain. During our visit, Wanaka was inundated with 35,000 additional visitors due to the annual A&P show (agricultural & pastoral). Any other weekend, this would be a wonderful place to stop and explore a bit.
Christchurch – Compared to the mountainous west coast, the landscape of the Canterbury region is wide open and relatively flat, about the only place in New Zealand where the roads are nearly straight. As the jump-off point for scientific expeditions to Antarctica, Christchurch is inextricably associated with that frozen continent. Thanks to her experience researching stratospheric ozone with NOAA, Karen’s strong connections to Antarctica drew us to Christchurch’s Antarctic Museum. Despite it’s dumbed down, edu-tainment approach, we enjoyed the museum. Highlights included riding in an actual Hagglund track-driven vehicle, and the opportunity to see native New Zealand penguins. The museum acts as a penguin sanctuary for injured birds who can’t survive in the wild. We heard many disappointed stories from friends who’d attempted to see wild penguins, so we were thankful to see them up close here.
Aoraki (Mt. Cook) – The sight of snow-capped Aoraki towering over a stunningly blue lake is one I had really hoped to see. It’s classic New Zealand, rugged and incredibly beautiful, the stuff of glossy postcards, and National Geographic center folds. Unfortunately, timing is critical, and our’s wasn’t good for this postcard view. Low clouds hovered just overhead, spitting rain at us in random spurts that only served to break the monotony of the otherwise steady drizzle. Nonetheless, we were still stunned by the cerulean blue color of the surrounding lakes & streams. The water is clear, but somehow appears remarkably blue from glacial ‘flour’ (fine silt). If I hadn’t seen it myself on a rainy day, I would assume the color was enhanced in Photoshop.
Hanmer Springs – The small, quaint town of Hanmer Springs is nestled into a well-forested area two hours north of Christchurch and the main draw here are the thermal pools. This is a fully developed thermal pool Mecca with numerous therapeutic soaking pools of various minerals and temperatures. To round out the family appeal they also offer several multi-story waterslides and a lazy river. As you might imagine, this stop was a big hit with our water-oriented family. The cold, rainy weather kept the crowds away so we more-or-less owned the waterslides, running seven or eight flights back up to the top as soon as we reached the end. Great for families, this would also fit perfectly into a romantic wine tour, as it’s not far from the Marlboro area.
What We Didn’t See – You can never see it all, and we skipped a lot! To my way of thinking this means we have plenty of incentive to visit again, and that’s a good thing. Tops on the list of missed sights are Abel Tasman National Park, Marlboro & Doubtful Sound, Queenstown, Invercargil (in particular I would like to have seen the ‘tributes to the gods of speed’ from the excellent movie The World’s Fastest Indian), Stewart Island, Dunedin, and Kaikoura (recently earthquake-damaged).
So with most of the sightseeing over, now we buckle down again and focus on the serious work of preparing ourselves and Batu for the difficult passages to come. We plan to leave New Zealand on the first good weather window after April 15. The weather is extremely volatile in these parts, so we’ll be weighing many factors into our decision, and we’ll do our best to keep posting updates.
Following are some highlights from our Driving tour of New Zealand’s North Island. For South Island highlights see the following post, #37. For a more general overview and crew perspectives see the previous post, #35.
NORTH ISLAND HIGHLIGHTS
Matauri Bay – An easy one-hour drive north from Opua, Matauri Bay is sparsely populated and serene in it’s natural beauty. We came to visit the Rainbow Warrior Memorial, and we were not disappointed. The Rainbow Warrior was a ship owned by the Greenpeace organization and used, among other things, to protest nuclear testing in the Pacific, specifically the French nuclear tests on Moruroa atol in the Tuamotus. On July 10, 1985 the ship was bombed and sunk in Auckland Harbor by the French government to prevent further protests. The agents who carried out the attack were convicted, but despite international protests, the French government continued to test nuclear devices on Moruroa for another ten years, finally ending in 1996. Find out more about the sobering true story of the Rainbow Warrior at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinking_of_the_Rainbow_Warrior
Cape Reinga – Nearly the northernmost point New Zealand, Cape Reinga (pronounced Ray-EN-ga) holds a special place in Maori legend as the gateway to the spirit world. Looking out from this precipitous point, it’s not hard to understand why. Occasional rays of sunlight peak weakly through through thick, dark, boiling clouds like hope struggling against darkness. Winds swirl and lash the place from most points of the compass. Below, the turbulent waters roil violently like opposing armies at the point where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman sea. Literally and figuratively, there can be no better place for a lighthouse.
Nearby, the towering Te Paki sand dunes provide the perfect counter-point to the spiritual weight of Cape Reinga: sand boarding! This is an awesome, must-do activity for adrenaline junkies! Extremely large sand dunes + boogie board = serious fun. Trudging for vertical will test your lungs and legs, but the adrenaline rush is enough to keep you climbing way past the point of exhaustion. We did laps here for at least four hours.
Ahipara – This small town on the Northwest coast is home to several famous point breaks that bring surfers from around the world for perfect long, fast barrels. The day we were there the surf was approximately six inches high but absolutely perfect. If only I were an ant. Seriously though, with a SW swell, the surf setup couldn’t be more perfect. Otherwise, the golden sand is great for castles.
Waitangi – Waitangi is the site of the Treaty signed between the British crown and over 500 Maori Chiefs on February 6, 1840. Only 10 minutes from Opua, this site features an excellent (but somewhat expensive) museum dedicated to the spirit of the treaty. Living nearby, we were able to attend the Waitangi Day celebrations on February 6, which were not only inspirational, but also free. The NZ Navy were in attendance with two modern warships complete with twenty-one gun cannon salutes. There were also tall sailing ships, and hundreds of Maori chanting while paddling huge traditional Waka or war canoes. Having anchored Batu directly off the Treaty grounds, we were right in the middle of the action. Ashore, there were dance and singing performances, arts & crafts, and foods of all sorts. Imagine ‘Fourth of July’ meets Cirque de Soleil…it was quite an experience.
Discussing the Treaty brings me to an interesting, possibly contentious, point about New Zealand. Certainly there have been many breaches of the treaty. Overall, the Maori have fared only marginally better than other indigenous peoples overtaken by western culture. But as an outside observer, I’ve been impressed by how integrated the two cultures are here. Although predominantly western, I sense respect for the Maori culture and a feeling of responsibility to preserve it. By my estimation it is at least a refreshing attempt at integration rather than cultural bulldozing.
Kauri trees – Giant Kauri trees, found only in New Zealand, have historically dominated the landscape here. Over-zealous logging has made old Kauri trees difficult to find, but these trees are certainly a sight to see. Most “Top 10″ lists will send visitors to the giant Te Matua Ngahere (the Father of the Forest) and Tane Mahuta in the Waipoua Forest. While we found these enormous trees impressive, the sites were also touristy. For us, the best place to experience the solemn power of these trees is in the groves of Northland’s Puketi and Omahuta Forests. Great ‘bush walks’ (hikes as they are called here).
Kiwis – In marketing, gift shops and the spoken language, kiwis are everywhere. In reality, this flightless, nocturnal bird is extremely reclusive. Even for professional researchers, it’s nearly impossible to see one in the wild. We found the best place to see wild-ish kiwis was at Kiwi North, a museum, and kiwi breeding sanctuary near Whangarei. Here you can watch a pair of these mysterious birds living in a carefully controlled, simulated environment – very cool.
Auckland – There are plenty of things to do in ‘the City of Sails’, but given our brief timeframe and general bias toward more natural sites, we spent the day in Auckland’s excellent Maritime Museum. We found the exhibits fascinating. There was outstanding coverage of America’s Cup and Vendee Globe sailboat racing as well as an entire floor on sailing legend Sir Peter Blake. Definitely worth a stop.
Rotorua – The Rotorua area, about two and a half hours south of Auckland, is famous for geothermal activity. Natural hot springs, bubbling mud pits and steaming sulphur vents are scattered all around a 50km radius. While a few hot springs are public, most sites are privately owned and involve a substantial entry fee. We decided to splurge on a visit to Wai-o-Tapu, and we were not disappointed. The range of colors in the thermal pools there was utterly surreal, almost like looking at another planet.
One sight that was not unique during our tour was that of sheep dotted among rolling green pastures. There are a few sheep museums around the country, but we decided to visit the Agrodome near Rotorua to learn a bit more about sheep and wool. Although seriously touristy, the show was an interesting live demonstration and gave us a hands-on feel for the attributes of nineteen varieties of sheep, and the skills of the sheepdogs herding them.
Wellington – The city of Wellington is nestled into a natural harbor at the Southern tip of the North Island. Despite being the capital city, it has a comfortable, homey feeling and would be a fun place to explore if given more time. We had two days in Wellington, and spent both of them at Te Papa, the national museum. Not only is the museum free, but the exhibits are outstanding, successfully conveying an intimate understanding of the subject matter for all ages and types of people. As someone who has experience staging exhibits, I was awestruck by the modernity and skill of the presentation as much as by the material itself. Two thumbs way up!
Wellington harbor provides excellent shelter for the large Interislander ferries which are the most common way to cross the blustery Cook Strait separating North and South Islands. While only 25km across at it’s narrowest, the Strait is regarded as one of the more dangerous patches of water in the world due to fierce currents and extremely strong winds. Crossing it was an interesting experience for us. We had rough conditions with 3 – 4m seas and heavy 35 knot winds during both crossings. However, despite the seasick passengers all around us, we had dumb smiles plastered on our faces due to the sheer ease of ‘sailing’ on a 22,000 ton vessel nearly 600 ft in length. The three-hour ferry crossing was an attraction in itself.
South Island Highlights are found in the following post, Touring New Zealand, part 3 – #37.
After our haul-out, time slipped away mercilessly as we embraced a domesticity we’d not experienced since our time in Mexico. It can be so comfortable to simply stay put for a while. After uncertainty and stress, there’s something therapeutic in having a schedule. Sometimes this is exactly what we need, other times it can feel like a hardening of the arteries.
Despite great conditions for solar power, we were experiencing shockingly poor performance from our one-year old solar system, prompting us to replace all four 100w panels. Two panels proved completely dead, the other two produced about enough power to light a flea circus, dimly. Despite the unexpected cost, the new panels should save a lot of diesel, not to mention daily engine hours needed to keep our electrical system topped up. Reduced longevity is one of the problems with the thin, flexible panels that our setup requires. Hard panels last longer, but are delicate and require more space.
We did make a few surgical strikes to explore the North Island, but the bulk of our February was spent on projects, planning, and initiating new homeschool curricula for the kids. While trying to figure out school requirements, Karen encountered a surprising lack of enthusiasm from the high school guidance counselor in our home town, but eventually found an engaged Vice Principal to confirm the standards. Sean is now enrolled in an accredited high school program through University of Nebraska which should allow him to have a complete transcript, regardless of where he chooses to go in the future.
As February rolled into March, we almost grudgingly relinquished our short-lived domesticity, giving up our comfy beds, home cooking, and regular swims at the community pool for exploration and adventure on the open road. Despite previous reports, we found the costs to explore NZ by car to be fairly high. The cost of petrol at around USD$8/gal didn’t help, but perhaps the biggest surprise to us was the cost of camping. Holiday parks, found almost everywhere, typically offer camping facilities ranging from bunk-type cabins to basic tent sites. Most have restrooms, showers and even community kitchen facilities, making them the most economical option. However, the cost for a basic tent site ranged from NZ$48 – $122/night, which seemed pretty steep to us. Consequently, we kept our land tour short. We were able to make several North Island excursions from Opua, with just an occasional overnight. When we finally did hit the road, we didn’t languish, driving a loop from Opua to Wanaka in the South Island and back in about twelve days, averaging about four+ hours of driving each day.
Here are a few thoughts about our exploration from the crew:
Peter: Karen, what sticks in your mind most about our tour?
Karen: Not one single place, but just an overwhelming feeling of awe at the beauty of all the places where we looked out over the water: Matauri Bay where we looked out over the Rainbow Warrior, the bluff [at Opononi] on the way down to Dargaville [looking west at the Tasman Sea], Crossing the Cook Straight, the look-out [at Hokitika] on the South Island where we saw the pancake rocks. All of it.
Peter: Wow, anything else?
Karen: I like the sheep too.
Peter: Sarah, what sticks in your mind the most?
Sarah: The Penguins.
Peter: At the Antactic exhibit [in Christchurch]?
Sarah: (Nods & smiles.)
Sarah: Because they swam really fast and were so graceful under water.
Peter: Sean, what were your favorite parts of our tour?
Sean: The Gates of Haast.
Peter: Yeah, why?
Sean: Because it was awesome.
Peter: Anything else?
Sean: I liked the water there…and it was cool out.
My hope has always been to share what I consider to be the most valuable spoils of our travels: our perspectives. That said, it’s nearly impossible to cover the highlights of our journey without a bit of travelogue. For those interested in touring New Zealand, the next two posts are for you. If not, hopefully you’ll enjoy some of the photos.
Seriously, if you ever hear me say the words “just a quick haulout” again, please smack some sense into me. Our seventeen days on the hard could have been much worse, but it was also not exactly the luxury yacht experience. I had intended to replace the bottom paint, do a few other small projects, and splash a week or so later. But of course, once you start poking around things always come up. In the end we spent about ten days sanding, grinding & filling small blisters, plus fairing the keel and propeller strut before even applying any paint. It has been about five years since we addressed any blisters, so it was time. Once the blisters were ground out, epoxied (3-4 times) and wet sanded, we covered the bottom with several layers of primer and two coats of International Ultra 2 hard epoxy bottom paint. Not my first choice, at least the International is available around the world. The same can not be said of our previous Z-Spar bottom paint, which is not available in New Zealand.
While on the hard, we somehow managed VIP yard placement. We were positioned front and center on clean asphalt, directly next to the bathrooms and community kitchen with a great view of the bay. Nonetheless, every chore such as bathroom access, washing dishes, and working on the boat meant scurrying up and down a fifteen foot ladder, so the term VIP might be a stretch. We decided to tackle stripping the varnish off of our teak. This is a big job, but easier done on a scaffolding than bobbing in the dinghy with an electrical heat gun. After acid-washing & polishing the hull, we applied new vinyl lettering for Batu and added an Indonesian turtle graphic. We also reamed out bushings, cleaned and rebuilt the self-steering wind vane. For good measure, we re-marked the anchor chain, cleaned and lubricated all through-hulls and installed an intake scoop on the engine raw water. All of these projects are necessary and important, so we’re glad to have them completed.
Time passes quickly when you’re immersed in projects, so on January 27th when Batu’s hull was set gently back in the water we hadn’t given even a moment’s thought to what would come next. We emerged from the Travel-lift slings blinking into the early morning sunlight, muscles tired and aching from the physical work, merely glad for Batu to feel like a boat again. We followed the rays of the sun East into the Bay of Islands and nestled in a cozy anchorage at Otaio Bay off of Urupukapuka (pronounced OO-roo-POO-ka-POO-ka) island. Here, at last, we found a taste of the luxury yacht experience; a three-day weekend at the height of Summer! Long naps, leisurely sails, and scenic hikes helped us recooperate.
So, what’s next for the Batuligans? We’ve known since we began this voyage that we’d need to go back to work at some point, and that time is approaching. I’m currently revamping my resume and applying to a few New Zealand leads. With my experience in product development, sourcing and manufacturing plus creative marketing and sales at the international level, I’m hoping to find a position or contract work with some expanding businesses. Karen is looking forward to continuing her nursing career. Regardless of work options, we’ve decided to plot a course back to the US once the cyclone season is over. This is a long, difficult journey that will take many months to complete, but we think we’re up to the challenge.
After the downwind sleigh ride of the coconut milk run through the South Pacific, most boats return to the islands, some boats continue Westward through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, but many boats are listed for sale in Australia or New Zealand. Although this might sound like an appealing option, we agreed at the outset that the journey would mean more to us if we returned under sail. Consequently, our plan involves three month-long passages and about 8000 nautical miles of travel through difficult wind & sea conditions. We plan to leave New Zealand between April 15 and May 15, and hope to return to the US sometime around September, 2017.
Up next, some perspectives from the Batu Crew from our exploration of New Zealand.
Ah Christmas time…the holiday season naturally brings to mind warm sunny days, balmy breezes, birds chirping, and colorful flowers blooming in early summer splendor. Sarcastic? Yes, sorry. Even after six weeks here in New Zealand, my lifetime of Northern-hemisphere influences still have me turned on my head. Nothing drove this home more, perhaps, than our Christmas Eve dinner with fresh, sweet corn from a roadside stand. I’m taking about the ‘good stuff,’ succulent, chin-dripping mouthfuls of buttery sweet corn on the cob. Rather than Christmas tradition, my brain invariably connects corn on the cob with huge mid-Summer gatherings at the family cottage on Canandaigua Lake. Despite the disorienting fact that the austral Christmas falls in mid-Summer, we managed to carry out the rest of our Christmas traditions dutifully, with a very modest gift exchange, eggs benedict on Christmas morning, and a serious smoked mussel chowder for dinner. Few things feel more like home, perhaps, than a full, happy tummy. To round out the cultural diversity we had a Mexican Train domino marathon well into the wee hours.
As we move into the New Year, the trees and flowers are blooming everywhere, including purple Jacarandas and the striking Pahutukawa tree (pronounced PA-hoo-too-COW-a), informally known as New Zealand’s ‘Christmas tree.’ It’s brilliant red blossoms and vivid green leaves are everywhere. To our pleasant surprise, we’ve also found local ripe bananas, oranges, apples, pears and avocados plentiful. I’m definitely warming to the idea of a fresh-produce holiday season!
Our plans were to spend just a couple weeks here in the Bay of Islands before moving South to Whangarei (pronounced FAHN-ga-rey), but just before departure we lucked into a long-term mooring here in Opua. This means we have a safe, inexpensive place to leave the boat while we explore other parts of the country. With that decision made, Opua is now our base of operations. We really like it here in Northland’s beautiful Bay of Islands.
Nearly every place we’ve been in the past year could be thoroughly explored without a car, but New Zealand isn’t like that. Within a couple weeks of arrival we found a well-used Volvo XC wagon to help with errands and exploration of the country by land. After our time aboard it didn’t seem right to go voyaging in a nameless vehicle, so we have christened the car “Fern” after the frequently used silver fern symbol of NZ (pronounced EN-zed).
English is spoken here, but many place names, signs and notices are also in the native Maori which frequently leaves us sputtering. It’s an excellent opportunity to advance our spoken language skills. Let me give you a few nearby examples: Hookianga (pronounced HOO-key-AHN-ga), Matauri (pronounced ma-TAO-ree), Waipukurau (pronounced WHY-poo-koo-RA-oo), Kawakawa (pronounced COW-a-COW-a), and Waikikamukau (pronounced – no I’m not joking – WHY-keek-a-MOO-cow). In fact, most places on the North Island are named with Maori words. We’ve also found it’s not a complete certainty that people will understand our English. Occasionally folks will wrinkle their noses, look puzzled and ask us to repeat apparently simple statements because our strange “yank” accents throw them off. We try to fit in, but our’ kiwi’ still comes off a bit contrived: “Yeeah mate! Cheers! Good-on-ya.”
Despite the favorable exchange rate NZD$1.00 = USD$0.75, we’ve found life in New Zealand to be fairly expensive. Gasoline (“petrol”) prices are $2 – $2.25/ liter, which translates to around USD$8.00/gallon, and grocery costs stack up quickly for our family due to shockingly small container sizes. Kiwis seem to have firmly refused any forms of “American excess,” including packaging in anything but the daintiest 2 – 3 serving sizes. Reinforcing this position, after careful market research Costco apparently bailed on plans to expand into NZ, deciding that the market was not open to bulk packaging.
We have many projects in the works since Batu is scheduled for haul-out on January 11. More on that in following posts, but in the meantime, we are tentatively starting to explore the North Island by car. I say “tentatively” because New Zealand roads are…different. This is not just about driving on the left. Although seemingly daunting, driving on the left hasn’t been too difficult to embrace since cars here are arranged with the driver’s side toward the center of the road. By “different” I mean narrow, curvy and hilly. Even when a straight path would be possible, most roads are shockingly serpentine with very narrow lanes and almost no shoulder. Presumably to reduce road costs, many bridges are only one lane, forcing frequent stops to allow oncoming traffic through. I myself could be called somewhat heavy-footed, but I’ve found Kiwi drivers to be surprisingly aggressive: often bumper-riding and occasionally passing blindly, if only to end up behind a line of slow moving campers. For me, this is an excellent excuse to practice calm breathing and focused relaxation techniques. I’m getting a lot of practice.
Ahh, but the scenery. Although the aforementioned driver has little time for viewing anything other than narrow, curving roads and white knuckles, the rest of the crew is transfixed by an endless panorama of rolling green hills, forests and pastures dotted with cows, sheep or occasionally deer, and peppered periodically by the rambling stream, shimmering lake or sweeping ocean vista. Northern New Zealand, also called Aotearoa (pronounced AH-o-TAY-a-ROW-a), is a pastoral artist’s dream.
All in all, I’d say the Batu Crew is still adapting to the many aspects of New Zealand which seem familiar, but also also strangely upside down and backward for a native top-sider. We’ll work to keep the posts coming as we explore this amazing place.
The pale blue light of the chartplotter reflects off my clammy, salt-coated face as I peer ahead intensely, sensing rather than seeing the waves breaking into moonlit heaps around us. We race them, moving fast as we have been for several days now, but tonight as we approach New Zealand’s coastline our speed has reached a fever pitch, averaging 8 – 9 knots. There is no time for thought now, only instinct, reaction and consequence remain as I hand-steer Batu through breaking seas in 35 knots of wind. The wind vane and the autopilot are overwhelmed and unable to keep us on a safe course.
We have been pushing the boat hard, really hard, for three days in hopes of avoiding this scenario, but it appears we’ve fallen a little short. Concern about this scenario has kept me from sleeping more than a few hours total over the past several days. This morning it appeared we might make Opua in time, but as we approached the 100 mile mark off of New Zealand’s northeast tip the wind backed 20 degrees, forcing us to sail to windward in building 25 – 30 knot winds. Although we still pressed hard, the shift slowed our speed down to 6 knots, delaying our arrival by a few critical hours. Now we continue to press and we hang on, unable to do anything more productive. By midnight, I have been at the helm for four of the most intense hours of my life. We have a little more than three hours remaining until we reach the Bay of Islands and the forecast is for still increasing winds. Worse, the adrenaline-connection between my instincts and my steering arm are beginning to dull. The steering is too quick and intense for me to feel comfortable turning the helm over to anyone else at the moment. We’re in a classic Catch 22; by pressing hard we have reached the relative safety of the coastline, giving us 4m seas rather than house-sized 6 – 9m seas farther out, yet we have too much sail out, so when the peak 35 – 45 knot winds finally arrive around 2am we have no way to tuck in a 3rd reef and we’re flying downwind, surfing at speeds around 10 – 11 knots. With the most intense wind comes a wall of rain around 3am and the utter blackness of a truly stormy night. We are barely more than 6 miles away from the entrance to the Bay of Islands, but with 2 reefs in the main, we’re carrying way too much sail to make the turn. Reducing sail in these conditions is simply not feasible, so we turn Batu away and heave-to. Surprisingly, this works well, allowing us to get an hour and a half of compressed rest before proceeding into Opua in the pale light of dawn. Fortunately by this time, the wind subsides and we arrive just before the reinforced clearing winds fill in to render the already messy sea utterly hideous.
At this time of year cold fronts cross New Zealand roughly every three to five days. As the fronts swing off to the East, they are typically filled in by high pressure ridges which reinforce winds behind the front. This creates a messy maelstrom of weather that is difficult to approach without getting into the thick of it. In our case, a strong front was reinforced by a 500-millibar shortwave and followed by a strong high, giving it some extra gusto. In retrospect, we fared alright. We know of several other boats who were well out to sea during this weather and each arrived with torn sails, one skipper had a concussion. As another front rolls overhead, we are thankful to be safe in port.
In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so pleased to simply be tied to a dock. Over the last year Batu has been on passage or at anchor for about 290 days. That’s a lot of “going” and for now it feels luxurious just to stop and rest for a bit. The green hills and sheep-dotted pastures of New Zealand beckon, small island’s entice, quaint villages beg to be explored. These things we will discover gradually over the next 5 – 6 months, but for now we rest, thankful for our safety and the love of family and friends around the world.
Thankfully, our passage from Niue to the Kingdom of Tonga was relatively uneventful. Leaving Niue, the wind was forecast to be light for most of the 2-3 day passage, so we carefully planned a slow average to arrive first thing Monday morning. Tonga has a limited number of officials and an extreme religious fervor, so it is best not to arrive on the weekend. The winds were light, but ahead of the beam allowing us to sail faster than anticipated. This was good, except that we were trying NOT to arrive on a Sunday, or in darkness. Despite our planning and fast passage, we arrived in the Vava’u Island group shortly after dawn on a Tuesday morning, having skipped Sunday (or Monday) as we passed West of the International Date line, a feature not shown on any of our charts, and encountered well East of 180 degrees longitude where one might rightly expect it.
Arriving at the Port of Neiafu, we were prepared for a detailed vessel inspection from the various officials required to board our boat. Instead, several of the glaze-eyed officials stumbled aboard, lurching directly to a seated position and slurring their way through our check-in. We thought perhaps Tongans were unaccustomed to boats, or simply very relaxed, but we later discovered that they were likely quite stoned on cava, a traditional brewed beverage used widely for celebrations and ceremonies in the Western Pacific. It was a somewhat baffling experience, but after a few hours we were officially checked in to the Kingdom of Tonga by the Departments of Quarrantine, Customs, Immigration and Health. Our subsequent experience with other Tongns has proved that they are a kind, generous and engaging group of people. We haven’t met anyone else that appeared to be under the influence of cava, or anything else for that matter.
The Vava’u (pronounced Va-VA-Ooo) islands are a beautiful, tropical archipelago that are reminiscent of the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest. The inter-island seas are mostly sheltered, making it easy to sail to a different anchorage in just an hour or two. The bays are so calm and protected it’s almost like sleeping ashore, something we haven’t felt in over a year. One could spend a lifetime exploring here. We’re finding beautiful snorkeling, caves, hiking trails and unique wildlife. Listening to the lively variation of the morning birdsong is a delight, in particular because it was almost non-existent in the islands to the East.
Our first evening in Neiafu, we heard what we thought we’re crickets, and watched in amazement as the sky filled with giant fruit bats called ‘flying foxes.’ These unique creatures, officially called pteropus tonganus, are about the size of a large hawk but fly somewhat less adeptly with lurchy, bat-like movements. During the daytime they mostly hang from tree branches, bundled up in their giant wings, occasionally breaking out into loud, cranky bat-fights and caterwauling, periodically taking a quick flight to stretch their wings. But at dusk the air fills with their cricket-like song and the sky beats with their Megabat wings as they go off searching for fruit.
The variation of yacht crews is increasing as well. As we crossed the Pacific and sailed through French Polynesia, the diverse, international fleet of yachts spread out, some sailing ahead while others took longer to explore or make repairs. A few boats have stayed in the islands – waiting in Tahiti, storing their boats in Raietea, or heading back to the Marquesas (the least likely place in the islands to encounter a cyclone). A couple yachts are heading back to the states via Hawaii. A few have sailed ahead to Fiji, up North to Samoa, or even farther North to the Marshall Islands. But, here in Tonga much of the fleet has re-grouped. We’re meeting up with crews we haven’t seen in months as many boats stage here, waiting to make the passage to New Zealand. There are almost certainly even more boats preparing to leave from Nukualofa, farther south in Tonga.
As the cyclone season draws near, we are becoming more intently focused on making the next passage – the jump to New Zealand. Weather is a critical factor. It is not common to make this passage without encountering at least some nasty weather. Alternating cold fronts and high pressure systems spin off of New Zealand every few days creating a flux of stormy, rainy, contrary winds and then intense ‘squash zones’ of gale-force clearing winds from the opposite direction. This, combined with the close proximity of the Southern Ocean sending potentially significant seas northward, can create some challenging passage weather between Tonga and New Zealand. We need to prepare the boat and ourselves for anything we may encounter. Thus we are working on tuning and inspecting the sails and rig, as well as the rest of the boat.
New Zealand officials have made it painstakingly clear that they strictly enforce a broad array of regulations regarding agricultural and biological organisms entering the country. This means that any dried or fresh grains, seeds, beans, lentils, nuts or fruit, and any fresh or frozen meat, eggs or dairy products will be confiscated and destroyed. It also means that, upon arrival, every crevice on our boat and her hull will be carefully inspected by canine crews and underwater divers. Prohibited items make-up a huge list, including anything at all growing on the hull. Boats can be refused entry or required to go into immediate (and costly) quarrantine at the discretion of the officials. Consequently, we have spent many, many hours scrubbing, scraping and cleaning the bottom of every last snippet of seagrass and barnacle base that remains after normal cleaning. Despite the fact that Batu had bottom paint less than a year ago, tropical growth, regular cleaning and nearly 10,000 nautical miles have taken their toll. We are definitely in need of anti-fouling bottom paint, so we’ll try to make advance arrangements to have the work done once we reach New Zealand.
Thankfully, we have so far managed to stay ahead of critical mechanical failures through conscientious maintenance and a nearly paranoid habit of checking and monitoring. However, our 40 year old engine keeps us on our toes. Having just replaced a failed raw water pump on the passage to Niue, we now need to replenish our spares (fresh & raw water pumps, gaskets, etc.) in order to be ready for anything again. So we will be traveling a bit light, tip-toeing with fingers crossed as we sail for New Zealand where we plan to spend the next 5 or 6 months.
Approaching landfall on the island of Niue, I look up from reading and expectantly scan the horizon. After the towering, cloud-shrouded peaks of Polynesia I expect to see the land reaching up to pierce the sky in a splinter of rocky crags. What I see instead actually makes me laugh out loud. It’s a giant pancake.
Like the Tuamotus, the island of Niue was formed as a coral atol, just awash at sea level. Unlike the Tuamotus, Niue was an atol eons ago when sea level was nearly 200 feet higher. As the sea receded, the coral fossilized leaving a rocky pancake of sea-etched limestone nearly 200 feet tall. Niue is unlike anything we’ve seen before. It looks so plain and unassuming that, as we approach I’m already making plans to depart; I mean how much diversity can there be on a giant flat rock? I couldn’t have been more wrong.
For starters, the Niuean people are extremely laid back and family-oriented. The island’s 2000 or so inhabitants nearly all seem to be warm and friendly, invariably giving a wave or a friendly ‘hello’ in passing. Even small children are confident enough to give a stranger a warm smile and a kind greeting. After the somewhat reserved, French-influenced attitudes of the Society Islands, this warmth and openness is a refreshing change. It certainly doesn’t hurt that we’re back in English-speaking territory, both Niuean and English are spoken thanks to Niue’s administrative affiliation with New Zealand.
Perhaps the most surprising thing for me about Niue, however, is the incredible diversity of creatures and spectacular destinations. In a very short time we saw limestone caverns, sea-carved arches, steep chasms, freshwater pools, coral gardens, whales, spinner dolphins, deadly (but friendly!) sea snakes, colorful reef fish, tide pools, tidal caves, cliff drops, and more. Even sites that were only a few hundred meters apart had completely different things to see and do. Naturally, we tended toward the water-oriented features, which were stunning, but made even more incredible by the crystal clear water clarity. Because the island is actually one big hunk of limestone (it’s affectionately called “The Rock” by those who know it) the water is almost completely devoid of sediment, making the diving and snorkeling some of the best in the world.
Simply put, we were gob-smacked by this place. Because of brewing weather systems we felt it best to leave after just a week, but I put Niue toward the top of a future return list. The locals would prefer to keep this a well-kept secret, but I’ll say if you ever have the chance, don’t miss a stop at “The Rock.” For me, it’s a good reminder not to generate expectations, and certainly never to judge a book by it’s cover.
After years of reading and research I expected to be dazzled by the shallow turquoise lagoon and towering heights of Bora Bora. If we had flown in from the states, we would have been floored. Having just completed five months of traveling through the Marquesas, Tuamotus and Society Islands, honestly, our Bora Bora experience was a little flat. The scenery was fantastic, the lagoon clear and beautiful, the beaches white, the trade winds balmy, but through our travels we had almost become accustomed to these things and in Bora Bora there was a noticeable press of tourism which soured the taste just a bit. More importantly for us, I suppose, it was simply time to move on. We could feel our time in these French islands coming to a close.
Weather is one reason for apprehension; the cyclone season officially begins November 1, and one can see the change happening already. In general, there’s more weather, more moisture, more convection; just more stuff to be concerned about. It’s easy to become a bit blasé about the weather when island hopping the trade winds in French Polynesia. Passages are short and it’s not difficult to avoid what little bad weather does exist. Traveling West of Bora Bora one begins to encounter more tropical disturbances, longer stretches between islands as well as low pressure trofs and cold fronts. In addition, the frequency, duration and intensity of these tropical weather disturbances all increase as the as the cyclone season approaches, creating a lively weather mix and making travel and forecasting a bit tricky.
Many boats we meet prefer to jump the shortest possible distance, no matter what, but we’ve found that sometimes it’s best to just make some miles. Once the Batuligans get into passage mode, we just want to go. So it was that we left Bora Bora and headed straight for the island nation of Niue, 1055nm away. Our Polynesian visas expired, with light winds astern we sailed right past the outposts of Maupiti and Maupilia, through the Cook Islands and past the island of Palmerston, arriving in Niue after 10 days on passage. The raw water pump failed, but luckily, we caught it just as it happened, and managed to install our spare the following day. We crossed through one low pressure trof with a couple days of rain and electrical storms all around us at times, but thankfully we managed to get through the voyage without too much kerfuffle.
While on passage we celebrated my 50th birthday; a significant milestone. I can still remember the day my father turned 50. He proudly declared himself an antique and, subsequently, wore his advanced age as a badge of honor, clearly intended to impress. I’m not quite ready to be classified as an antique. However, I am (apparently) beginning to exhibit some signs of possible deterioration in the form of inadvertant grunts and groans associated with advancing years and the various yoga-esque positions required for boat maintenance. Justifiably, Karen and the kids have a blast ribbing me about my ‘old-man’ noises. Truthfully, I think it may be a genetic trait so I try not to stress too much about it.
I have to admit, the fifty year mark is something of a milestone and I’m grateful to have no regrets as I sail past it. All we can ask of ourselves is to be fully engaged in living, and that is precisely why I find myself crossing 1000 miles of ocean with my wife and kids. My birthday also marks one year since we left our home in Hood River and began the voyaging life. I can scarcely believe it has been a year; we still feel we are just getting started. There are many challenges to rise to and so much more to learn!
Several nights during the passage the sky has been filled with shooting stars. Tonight, there is a meteor, so large and close that it looks like a flaming ball of fire strafing the night. I gaze at the sky, awestruck, as I stand at Batu’s helm. We sail silently over the wide arc of the globe, bioluminescence sparkling in our wake. Tears well up in my eyes as I declare solemnly to the stars “I wish I were…right here.” No matter what the cost in time, energy and money, I am so grateful to be able to live this way, together with my family, right here and now. Our lives are finite, and there’s no time to spare.