Our arrival last November in New Zealand was the culmination of a decades long dream to sail the notoriously challenging bit of ocean from the South Pacific tropics to the Land of the Long White Cloud. It’s not for the faint of heart, we knew, and many yachts opt out of the passage south, preferring to either remain in the tropics for cyclone season or leave their boats and travel to New Zealand by air. We embraced the challenge and joined the intrepid lot setting a course south.
As it turned out, while most boats met the expected uncomfortable and confounding weather conditions, we enjoyed the perfect passage of a lifetime, sailing on calm seas with favorable winds in the company of good friends. Our 824-mile run from Minerva Reef to Opua was one of the best open ocean journeys we’ve ever had, even if the winds were a little light sometimes and EV required the occasional gentle assist from a diesel engine. Nevertheless, we foreign yachties were proud of ourselves for the accomplishment, and in awe of the local or expat sailors who make this passage from New Zealand to the tropics and back again every year.
We’d read so many stories of sailors who, when arriving in New Zealand, felt they had at last found paradise and we were primed to be dazzled by the place that lures those who venture west. And we were dazzled, if not bewitched. We had big plans to see as much of the country as we could, both by boat and by land travel, but the universe had other plans. We were initially thrown off kilter when a planned family visit was rescheduled, then put on hold and eventually cancelled. We had a lingering saildrive shaft issue that may or may not have been serious and that kept us from doing much exploring by boat until it was fixed, requiring a long wait for parts to be shipped from Europe. The parts and a subsequent surprise additional expensive repair blew a hole in our touring budget. The weather during our first month in Northland was not conducive to touring at all. And so on. In the end we enjoyed our time in New Zealand but it wasn’t all we had hoped, and as time ran out on our visas and the weather deteriorated we were eager to turn the bows north and get back to the tropical sailing we’ve come to love.
[An aside about visas: if you noticed the frequency of our blogging diminished during our last month in New Zealand it’s because we became illegals, overstaying our visas by several weeks. And while we probably weren’t on a NZ Most Wanted list, we did try to go stealth as much as possible. Americans are granted 90 days on arrival, which can be extended quite easily with a long application and some hefty fees to 180 days. We did that, fully expecting to sail away toward the end of the six months. But the weather kept us pinned at the starting block as system after nasty system marched across the Tasman Sea roiling up the waves and causing the kind of nasty havoc no sailor wants to face. Our visa expiration came and went. We tried to apply for an extension, but beyond the 180 days New Zealand requires more big fees and a chest X-ray if you’d spent more than 90 days in French Polynesia, which they consider to be a TB risk. The logic of waiting until you’d been in the country sharing your germs for six months before checking to see if you’re infected escapes me, and the cost of the X-rays, the associated cost of the doctor to read the X-rays and fill out the official paperwork, and the risk of medically unnecessary radiation made us reluctant to apply. Add to that the fact that in Northland there are few medical centers that are approved for the visa requirements, none of which are easily reached by a cruiser with no vehicle. After long discussions with Immigration in Auckland and the local Opua officials, as well as anecdotal info shared by other cruisers, we decided to lay low and wait until we felt comfortable with the weather conditions before heading out. We do not recommend this, as it goes against the rules of a country that hosted us very well, but there were many sailors in our same predicament, ready to leave but delayed by weather, and we feel there ought to be an easier way to stop the clock temporarily beyond just the full-on reapplication for a new visa. None of us ventured far from our boats while we waited except to resupply. We saw no evidence that anyone was abusing the system for a longer term stay. We just wanted official sanction for weather delays and didn’t get it.]
Eventually of course we got our weather window, and judging from our discussions with more knowledgable folks, our passage was much more typical of this route than our trip south. Several crews said it was their worst passage ever, characterized as it was with unrelenting high winds and seas that we would normally not have ventured out in but that became “normal” as the days ticked by. We reserved the Worst designation for our passage to Tonga for sheer discomfort but this was definitely one we hope not to repeat.
We learned once again that when you are in a well-built vessel trimmed properly for the conditions, the boat will take care of you. Many times during the 9-day journey when the wind was howling and inside the boat all kinds of creaks and bangs and rattles made it sound like we would break apart, a step over the threshold into the cockpit to look up at the rig and watch the motion of EV through the 3- and 4-meter steep seas set my mind at ease that our little magic carpet is perfectly fine with these conditions, and sometimes even seemed to enjoy it.
We did have our moments, which seem to happen more often during my night watch, the 6pm to midnight shift, when whatever the wind had been doing during the day changed as the sun went down. Usually the wind piped up to even higher, regardless of what the weatherman predicted. That required a further reduction in sail area, even when we were already deeply reefed.
One night a sudden wind squall hit and I wanted to ease the mainsheet to spill some wind until the squall passed. I reached for the clutch that secures the sheet and by mistake unclutched the main halyard. The mainsail whooshed down toward deck and I slammed the clutch down, ending up with the mainsail half up and the bottom part billowing down on deck and ballooning out with the wind against the shrouds. Oops. It was only an hour into my watch but I had to call Jack up on deck to turn the boat into the wind and hold it there while I pulled the bottom part of the sail under control. The whole maneuver only took about ten minutes but any disruption of sleep schedule adds to the accumulated sleep deficit we experience on a passage of any length.
Our last night before landfall looked promising. The predicted milder wind finally materialized and we enjoyed our first “normal” meal seated at the saloon table eating like normal human beings, as opposed to being wedged into a corner to keep from being flung about. The slower speed meant there was a possibility we wouldn’t arrive the next day in time to check in with the authorities, which meant a night spent just outside port at anchor, but at least we’d be out of harm’s way. The calm lasted about 35 minutes before the wind blasted through once again and we were right back where we’d been for over a week. Damn! we thought, and went back out to reduce sail again and prepare for another night of rip-roaring fast sailing. We turned into the wind, reefed the mainsail to its settle-down level, turned back to resume course and got hit with bizarre waves that slewed us this way and that, causing two back-to-back unintentional jibes — where the boom and sails slam violently to the other side of the boat. We took a breath, hauled in the sheets to control the sails, slowing motored around in a circle until the seas settled, then approached our course again, keeping the sails under control until we could get them safely to the correct side of the boat. But the mainsail wouldn’t jibe over. It seemed stuck. We tried again. Nope. The boom was stuck. We took turns hand steering, holding the boat into the wind while the other investigated what could be causing the boom to stay in one place. We discovered that the preventer, a line we use to keep the boom from jibing, and which has to be temporarily untied while we reduce sail, had been seized by the wind, almost comically wrapped around the solar panels on the roof and tied itself in a tight knot around the stern anchor hanging off the back porch. What are the odds? It was under such tension in the high wind that we had to gently maneuver the boat into and off the wind enough to ease the pressure and untie the knot, then unwrap the line from around the panels on the roof. That’ll get your blood pumping!
After a long run off the wind we got everything under control again and sailed back on course. Here’s our track during the debacle.
The rest of the night was largely sleepless, what with the adrenaline rush and approaching land in reef infested waters. But our speed through the night meant we arrived in plenty of time to go through the health, biosecurity, customs and immigration checkin before closing and still have time to get EV secured to a mooring and meet our friends at the bar by happy hour.
This was our third longest passage to date at 1221 nautical miles, right behind Bora Bora to Tonga and just ahead of Spanish Wells to St John. It’s one we hope not to repeat, but we’re happy with how well our sturdy little Escape Velocity takes care of us, and except for a broken cowl vent on the back steps torn off by the huge seas, we arrived once again from a long passage without a list of repairs. Well done, EV!