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Bashing to New Zealand

I love Kiwis but they really put their country in a stupid place. I’m serious. I actually angrily emailed Helen Clark, their prime mistress, and asked, “What were you guys thinking?” Yes, New Zealand is an extremely difficult yachting destination to visit, especially via a small sailboat commanded by a large man with a tiny brain. Our recent passage southward went exactly as expected: it started bad, got worse and ended horrible!

I’m not sure why we keep doing it… self-hatred, maybe?

We left from New Caledonia in mid-October. The wind was right on the nose when we started and remained that way for a solid week. Ugh!

It was like riding a sadistic, unending, vomit-friendly roller-coaster——with the added irritants of dampness and chilliness… all spiced by legitimate, stomach-churning fear.

Thank gosh I have a stout storm-staysail aboard Wild Card! Our foredeck was awash the entire trip down, and, thus, my normal jib would have been continuously scooping up solid water… something no sail can survive for long.

Oh, yes, arriving safely in New Zealand is a genuine, bona fide sailing challenge.

Basically, you have to leave on a high pressure system. This brings ‘reinforced trades’ of 30+ knots from the Southeast, exactly where you want to go. Since the wind doesn’t vary much, the seas are huge. Beating your way through them… well, ‘beating’ is what you AND your vessel get plenty of.

By our third day, the wind had built to 35 knots and it just didn’t make sense to continue to punish ourselves and/or risk breaking the boat. We hove-to for 24 hours.

This was fun, relaxing and we only lost 12 miles doing so. Not too bad. Actually, the best part! Heaving-to is simple, quick and easy about Wild Card. We did it three times this trip. It serves as a sort of ‘time-out’ for us… especially useful if we want to have a delicious meal or work on the boat or… well, I don’t like to neglect romance on passage either!

Our ‘high pressure system’ stalled, and, instead of the wind veering to the east as predicted by the experts… it stayed southeast… boo hoo!

Yes, there are strong ocean currents as you approach New Zealand. Of course, they’re against you!

In order to get to New Zealand, we had to go through an almost stationary high pressure system. There are three problems with this: the approach, the middle and the end.

The approach, as mentioned, requires going to windward against very hard, very consistent winds. The middle is virtually airless. We had to power for so long that we used every drop of diesel fuel aboard except for a single two gallon ‘git-to-the-dock’ reserve jug.

Once through the high pressure and below 32 degrees south——watch out! It’s a sleigh ride for the final couple of hundred miles. We had 45 knots across the deck.

Normally we’d heave-to in such a wind. It simply isn’t wise to sail a boat like mine in such conditions: the chances of breaking something, broaching and/or pitch-poling are simply too great. However, we almost felt we didn’t have a choice. The longer we stayed off the coast of NZ, the longer we’d get beat up. So it was basically a choice between ‘suffer now’ or ‘suffer longer’ but suffer was the main ingredient.

In any event we kept sailing despite touching 13.5 knots, an almost a suicidal speed on a boat with only 28 feet of waterline!

Yes, if you like to sail to New Zealand it helps if you are a masochist!

If all this wasn’t bad enough, there’s plenty of other stuff to worry about along the way. In our case, a tropical storm named Xaiver threatened from the north at the same time winter gales menaced from the south. “This isn’t fair,” moaned Carolyn. “I mean, give me one or the other adversary… not both! Only in New Zealand can winter AND summer be trying to kill you AT THE SAME TIME!”

It wasn’t warm… ever. With every mile sailed south, it got colder, wetter, rougher. One morning the temperature was in the forties at dawn… so cold I could barely get my hand out of the sleeping bag to point at the sailing tasks I wanted Carolyn to perform. (Woman have an extra layer of body fat… which, basically, makes them impervious to the cold… a fact which Carolyn probably WOULD have agreed with… IF her teeth hadn’t been chattering so badly).

It got to the point I didn’t even want to turn on my SSB radio and listen to all the pathetic ‘newbie’ boaters whining to be taken off their sinking/disabled vessels and airlifted to… well, any place on earth except New Zealand.

The reason that NZ’s SAR (Search and Rescue) is the best in the world in ‘ultimate’ storm conditions is because they’ve had so much bloody practice.

This is not an exaggeration. The USCG rarely rescues people from the decks of yachts floundering offshore while their Kiwi counterparts do so regularly. In fact, all the Northland marinas have brochures which go through this complicated procedure step-by-step.

In fact, it isn’t all that unusual for the Kiwis to have multiple vessels floundering at the same time: during the Queen’s Birthday storm a few years back there was a ‘long queue’ as the Brits say.

The last few miles into Opua can be stressful. The Bay of Islands, which you have to sail through, is exactly that. We did it at night, in a gale, with no engine. (Naw, we don’t have radar… that would take the sport out of it, eh?)

The good news is, if you actually don’t drown along the way, that you get a good, warm, hearty welcome by the amazingly friendly Opua Cruising Club when you arrive.

Two of its members, George and Dorothy, are almost saints. They’ve devoted their entire lives to helping out visiting cruisers who are summering in New Zealand. Once we’d cleared Customs they bought us drinks, took us shopping and later even took us home to eat!

They know virtually all the globe-trotting sailors of the world… just from George looking off their waterfront porch and saying, “…another boat has arrived, Dorothy… I’ll get the car!” (Their tales of Eric and Susan Hiscock are particularly charming).

In addition, we met up with Allan and Pauline Legge, two glue-struck multihull builders who live in the area and own a local ship’s chandlery named Opua Port Supply.

Later that afternoon we anchored right next to Webb Chile’s 38 foot sloop Hawk——and he soon clambered aboard Wild Card for dinner and a gam.

Webb is currently preparing to set off on his fifth circumnavigation and is one of the few men… maybe the only one… to sail around the world in an open 18 foot vessel.

It is always nice to talk to Webb. He’s extremely straight-forward and direct. My favorite part of our conversation was when he repeatedly complained that, dang it, every time he rolls a vessel he loses his expensive masthead wind instruments! (Yeah, Webb is the ‘real-deal’ when it comes to offshore animals!)

Of course, we were shivering the whole time. These Kiwis are tough! It is almost as if they are inhabiting a different world: we’d sit in our huge winter jackets and thick wool sweaters and hi-tech poly longjohns… and watch whole families swim at the beach… in cold, gale-force conditions!

“The only nice part of sailing to New Zealand,” Carolyn said both grimly and succinctly, “is when you stop!”

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