Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rough Weather Off the North Island

Auckland - The City of Sails
Auckland - The City of Sails
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Oddly enough to us, practically the first question of every Kiwi on learning that we recently sailed across the Pacific from North America is: “Did you have any really bad weather?” Generally, this isn’t the first question asked by Americans. Americans ask us about pirates, sometimes about banditos and avian bird flu, and memorably once about the availability of Starbucks coffee in Puerto Vallarta.* Experienced cruisers don’t ask either type of question since the answers are well known. Instead, they ask which islands we visited on the crossing and have we yet found a cheap place to do laundry.

Kiwis focus on the weather. This is smart. New Zealand coastal weather is challenging at best. At her worst, New Zealand’s coasts kill boats, boaters, and fishermen with a dreary regularity which provides a steady trickle of articles for page three of the New Zealand Herald. I believe it might even provide enough work to qualify as a journalistic beat. Of course, by far the majority of vessels and individuals lost are very small motor craft and weekend fishers. A well-founded cruising yacht which has already proven herself transiting the world’s oceans with a crew that is alert and on their game is unlikely to come to too much grief. Listen to the regularly broadcast weather reports, pay very close attention to your charts at their most detailed setting as most of the coastline is distressingly shallow and littered with obstacles, and do not get cocky.

Because New Zealand is likely to offer a global sailor some of the worst weather seen since leaving the Pacific Northwest or the Caribbean on the front end of the hurricane season. She certainly served Don Quixote a quick smack in the face translated as roughly, “Wake up you idiots! You’re not in the tropics anymore.” While it is difficult to say with precision since our wind instrument head unit abruptly died in Tonga, we estimate that we saw the highest wind speeds of our entire journey while making the passage from Whangarei to Auckland.

Not surprisingly, we were out in the rough weather because of a calendar. It really can not be said enough times: The most dangerous piece of equipment on a cruising sail boat is the calendar. We were under direct orders from BioSecurity AND Customs to get ourselves down to Auckland by Friday. BioSecurity wanted us to get Dulcinea into quarantine; Customs needed us to import the boat since we were not applying for the temporary import permit used by most vessels entering the country. As a side note, if you are planning to import your yacht into New Zealand and you are going to try to do so under the Work visa personal goods exemption, you must do this in Opua or Auckland. Details details.

It was leave Thursday or not leave until Monday which clearly would not suit New Zealand officialdom, so off we went in spite of rather nasty weather reports. We knew going into it that Thursday would entail very brisk winds from the north sweeping us south at high speed while Friday would clock the wind around 180 degrees and hit us on the nose for the last 20 miles into Auckland. Unlike the vast middle of the planet, the weather reports from Whangarei to Auckland are frequent, broadcast on VHF radio every three hours, and quite accurate out to 3 or 4 days. Trusting the reports, we knew that the trip was going to be unpleasant but completely within our wheelhouse.

The trip was precisely as predicted. On Thursday, we put up our downwind sails wing on wing and sped south roughly 60 NM. We were chased by a truly ominous black cloud virtually the entire time. At one point, we were clocking a steady 10 NM speed over ground. With no swell, virtually no wind waves, pointed downwind with probably 35 knots gusting to 40 behind us, I’m not even certain we could have slowed down if we wanted to. We made the trip in record time. For those keeping score, 10 NM is ridiculously fast for Don Quixote, and we haven’t seen 40 knots since we left the Oregon coast in 2008.

Friday was much much worse. We got up early to make the last bit into Auckland in time to get all our paperwork complete by mid-afternoon. As we rounded the corner into the Whangaparoa Passage, it was clear that the forecast had been depressingly specific and accurate. It was blowing 30, gusts to 35 but now straight on the nose. Rounding the point, it might have been worse as spray was blowing off the tiny wind caps and straight at us. We attempted to tack back and forth for awhile. I stopped looking at the knot meter. Why bother. We suck going upwind. We were making 7 to 8 over ground but our speed towards our destination was virtually negative. Eventually, we gave up, pulled down the sails, and motored into the teeth of gale. Unlike the prior day, the channel in this area caused a seriously nasty tidal current vs. wind wave action so the entire 20 miles was spent in a banging, bashing, smashing slog. We arrived in sunny, breezy Auckland beaten to a pulp and exhausted.

This is normal weather at this time of year off the west coast of New Zealand. It isn’t even particularly exciting to the locals. Yachtsmen here, like in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon have a wary and respectful relationship with their coastline. High tide swings, shallow seas, and thousands of islands, islets and rocks require experience and caution. I am not at all surprised that New Zealand sailors are some of the best in the world. Just navigating their home waters is an incredible proving ground.

This area is also tremendously beautiful and extremely fun to navigate. There are pocket anchorages all over everywhere. The holding for anchors is mud, mud, and more mud putting us back into gunkholing mode. Little towns dot the coastline complete with parks where a cruiser can land a dinghy and go for a walk-about. Small volcanoes dot the seas and spear up on the horizon, wildlife is abundant, and they tell us that the fish leap on to the hooks. We’ll stick to crabbing and mussels since the only thing we do worse than sailing up wind is catching fish.

But it will all have to wait. The family is united on precisely one thing right now. We do not want to go sailing. We absolutely do NOT want to go to some pristine, quiet anchorage and enjoy each other’s company. Stick a fork in us. We are done.

* Yes, there is a Starbucks in Neuvo Vallarta at the mall outside the marina. However, no… they do not sell whole bean coffee. I am not proud I know this.


Shelley S/V Imagine said...

Haha, wouldn't you know it Toast, half way to Nelson we had a ride we will remember for a while. Winds of 40 with gusts to 55 knots for 36 hours...the seas were hideous...none of it forecast. We've been in a rented house the last week! Great to see you guys in Auckland.

judith said...

I love that wind blown look too!

Kirk, S/V Discovery said...

Toast - been trying to reach you, no reply. In Sydney now. Claire and I fly to Auckland on 30th to meet rest of family. drop line, see if we can hook up.
Kirk & Claire
S/V Discovery