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The Bay of Islands Basics

Copyright 2006 by Cap’n Fatty Goodlander

Picture the Virgin Islands set in Maine, and you’re close to the reality of the Bay of Islands in New Zealand. There are dozens of ‘em, from large to small and each is ringed with harbors galore.

The sailing is often exciting, with high winds, large seas and very strong currents. Generally speaking, Kiwi are knowledgeable seamen… or soon dead. (Gulp!)

Yes, it is far trickier sailing here than in the Caribbean. There are twice-a-day ten foot tides, rocks everywhere, and dense fog is common.

The weather in New Zealand is also a problem. It is notoriously changeable and rough. It is not unusual to have a ridge, high, cold front and ‘major low’ pass overhead… with a couple of ‘fine breaks’ and some heavy rain in between… all within 24 hours. Even worse, what locals call a ‘bit of breeze’ is a near-hurricane force wind which is capable of making grown men cry… and does so, often!

Holding is spotty. If you can find mud, it is wonderfully sticky. However, rock/lava/stone bottoms are common, and the swift currents have a tendency to ‘hard scour’ the bottom.

Since there are no Tradewinds, vessels have to clock around the island with the veering winds. While there are a few harbors which offer 360 degree protection, most do not. And the fetch is… well, Cape Horn to the east and Tasmania to the west!

Perhaps nowhere else in the world does a sailor have more ‘back up’ than in New Zealand. Their SAR (search and rescue) organization is, arguably, the best on the planet. All the various marine groups (SAR, CG, Customs, Russell Radio and various YCs) seem to work seamlessly together. Individual ‘good Samaritans’ stand by on channel 16 VHF to assist in medical emergencies and to call an ambulance or ‘phone-patch’ a doctor if needed.

There is a nation-wide repeater system on the VHF bands. This means if you can reach any one of a hundred hilltop antennas along the coast… you can talk to any official entity anywhere in the country.

I’ve never been anywhere where the welcome is heartier or the assistance and encouragement is more readily offered. Kiwis offer sailing comradery at its best. Most New Zealanders are more than just knowledgeably boaters, one-in-four regularly participate in yacht racing!

The downside of this, if there is one, is that New Zealand waters are heavily used. The Bay of Island is their ‘crown jewel’ and nearly everyone in the country can be found lounging around a cockpit on a day with some ‘fine breaks!’

Anchorages are active, like in the BVIs, with most vessels leaving in the morning, stopping for lunch in a different harbor and anchoring in the evening in yet a third.

Yes, the weather, as previously stated, is often miserable. They are always talking about ‘fine breaks’ which is when the sun pokes through the gloom for a moment or two. This is rare, and thus treasured. (New Zealand gets as much sun as the VI does in day or so… but it is, alas, spread out over an entire year!)

As a result, the Kiwis tend to be hardy folks. Last weekend, Carolyn and I strolled by a beach… in our long-johns, fleece, heavy jackets and winter hats… and watched with amazement as the local families frolicked joyfully in the water.

On what would be one of the ‘coldest days of the year’ in the Lesser Antilles, the locals are dying of the heat and there are strangely sensational radio ‘news flashes’ of cows ‘keeling over in the fields’ due to the extreme temperatures?!?

The good news for the Caribbean sailor in New Zealand is how different it is. The colors, for example, are completely different. The blues in the Lesser Antilles are unequaled but the greens here are more vivid, more lush, more… ‘extreme’ than anywhere else I can remember.

The air smells different too: brisk, briny and invigorating.

Perhaps the best part of cruising New Zealand is how cooperative and understanding the dirt-dwellers are. Every town has a public wharf for loading and unloading. Water is free. Many businesses have docks for their customers. There are cheap moorings widely available, and convenient anchoring is allowed everywhere.

It is, I know this sounds almost crazily unusual, as if the average New Zealander loves boating and boaters and genuinely appreciates their company AS WELL AS their dollars.

The most unique thing in New Zealand is their ‘cruising clubs’. These are sort of like yacht clubs, but with the emphasis on boats (not tennis) and cruising… and, also, racing.

Take the Opua Cruising Club as an example. It is such a wonderful place, I joined immediately. Guess how much it costs for a year’s ‘full visitor’ membership? Thirty bucks Kiwi, or about $21.00 US for the entire year!

What do you get? 1.) Complete use of the large, friendly, spacious club. 2.) Discounted drinks and meals. 3.) Showers. 4.) Laundromat. 5.) Water. 6.) Toilets. 7.) TV. 8.) Library. 9.) Playground for the kiddies. 10.) Picnic area. 11.) Endless complimentary coffee and tea. 12.) Dinghy tie-up. 13.) Use of the main dock to load and unload… and to do small (couple of hours, no problem) boat projects… sure you can use the electricity for your tools!

Yes, there is a happy hour… meals… regular racing for the ‘serious,’ speed junkies as well as the ladies and the children… regular ‘group cruises’… and other marine-related social events.

All this, with a wide smile, for less than SIX CENTS (US) A DAY!

Even I, a notoriously frugal & cheap sea gypsy, can afford that!

To top it all off, the use of the club isn’t limited to the club members. If a visiting sailor is just passing through, fine! No problem! “It’s on the house, mate!’

And if a person, any person, wants to race, they can. Automatically! No questions asked! Before each race, two of the large ‘hot’ racing vessel wait at the end of the pier for any and all ‘last minute, wanna-be’ crew.

The Russell Bay Boat Club just down the block offers an in-house non-profit shipyard as well… if it is half as good as their ‘Tequila Christmas party’ well, then it must be completely marvelous!

Are there any Caribbean vessels here besides our Wild Card? Sure. Rick and Robin of Phantomchartered out of Tortola for many years. Terri Batham of Sea Quest is from a notorious USVI chartering family: she grew up with Timmy Carstarphen aboard Maverick!

There are numerous other Caribbean sailors as well: three different boats I recently spotted in Coral Bay are currently anchored in Russell.

Is New Zealand the perfect place for a sailor to ‘swallow the hook’ and retire to? I think not. It is a bit ‘too challenging’ in my humble opinion. The Caribbean beats it for ‘ease of use’ in virtually every category. However, it is a swell place to visit for the summer IF you have a storm trysail for the lulls and a Para-tech sea anchor for the blows!

Cap’n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. He is the author of “Chasing the Horizon” by American Paradise Publishing, “Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies” and “The Collected Fat.” For more Fat-flashes, see fattygoodlander.com

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