Nelson NZ to Bay of Islands via West Coast

Whangaroa paradise, sailor’s rest

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

Date: Jan. 14, 2016, 4 p.m.
Position: 35 1.00 S, 173 45.00 E
SOG (kts): 0.0
January 15-18: Whangaroa Harbour is a sailor’s dream. Multiple arms wrap around the bay providing complete protection in any wind. There are hundreds of nooks & crannies. And the bottom of the entire bay is a uniform 40 feet deep, sticky mud bottom with excellent anchor holding power. Kelsey and I were astounded by the scenery as we entered the bay–towering lava pinnacles with overhanging grottoes rise vertically from the flat-calm waters beneath. In fact, the bay looks very much like the anchorage at Fatu Hiva, Marquesas, which is said to be one of the most beautiful anchorages in the world. I’d say this is one of the top-three anchorages we’ve encountered on the long voyage so far–we’ve seen so many beautiful anchorages but this one takes the cake for the protection it offers. I was almost asleep by the time Privateer’s anchor bit into the blue-clay-mud bottom. We are in a bay within the bay, surrounded by sheer cliffs cloaked in sub-tropical tree ferns & jungle, on a pool of glassy water. The roar of cicadas in the surrounding hills are the only thing I heard as I drifted off to sleep at 9Am, and we took an extended siesta for the entire day. The satisfaction of reaching a place like this after earning it through an offshore passage/rough day at the capes is unmatched.

In the evening after the hot sun cooled down a bit, we pumped up the inflatable dinghy and zoomed across the bay several miles distant to check out the town of Whangaroa. It was Taz’s first time in the dinghy! At first he was a bit suspicious as the boat got up on a plane and flew over the water, but he quickly became a “natural”. It was a Friday night and everyone was moderately intoxicated at the local yokal waterfront bars. The scene reminded us of Lake Minnetonka or small-town Wisconsin–we were back at the redneck yacht club! Taz, Kelsey, and I stretched our sea legs and took a nice sunset stroll down the road. Taz was pretty pissed off every time we picked him up–he wanted to be walking too! So we crept along, stooped over & helping him navigate the pavement. He actually seems more sure-footed on the boat than he does on land!

We’ve been in Whangaroa Harbour for four days now. One day to rest up, one day to go hiking and because we just couldn’t leave such an incredible place after just one night, and now two more days to wait out bad weather. Whangaroa Harbour is the perfect place to rest, hike, and sit out a storm, and we were happy to have the excuse to do all of these things here!

On the second day we explored Rere Bay by dinghy and landed at a trailhead there. We hiked up a “track” (as the Kiwis call trails) that wound its way along a lagoon and mangrove forest. We called it the “Jurassic Park Garden of Eden”. The track opened out onto lush grassy valleys set among cliffs and waterfalls cascading from cliffs hundreds of feet above. The deafening cicadas set up a vibration that made it feel like they were actually inside of our skulls. We hiked under a towering Manuka tree forest with a thick layer of tree ferns and palms above in the under-story. A few hours later we came to a deep, clear pool at a river crossing, and had a picnic and a good long swim. The perfect hike on a nice sunny day.

On the third day we’d run out of fresh drinking water. I tried to get some at the town but was told that none of the water there is potable! I was directed to the New Zealand Coast Guard Water Buoy, which is just what the name implies: a buoy with a fresh tap coming out of it! Awesome. I filled up our water bottles from the dinghy, and later we returned with the whole boat and topped up the ship’s tanks! We don’t like to run our water-maker in coastal harbors like this, because of the silt from the land. For our water-maker to work it’s best, it needs good clear, & salty ocean water. The Coast Guard water buoy was the perfect solution, and just one more thing we love about Whangaroa Harbour.

The weather deteriorated until williwaws swept down from the high peaks and out-croppings above, but our anchor was stuck so hard and fast that it took great effort to suck it out of the mud later on, and the chain never made a sound as we swung in the wind. Great swathes of foam swept up off the surface of the bay when the gusts hit, and the waterfalls above were actually flowing UP and into thin air, blowing away completely off the cliffs. It was surreal. Bands and sheets of rain twirled around the bay like miniature tornadoes. The best thing is that we got to enjoy the show safely on the hook, without worry, and thinking all the while how nice it was that we weren’t at sea on a day like today!

The storm switched off like a light switch this evening (the 18th), and the sun came out just in time to set over glassy waters. We’re off for Kerikeri tomorrow, in the Bay of Islands, to complete the last leg of our trip. Taz is in good form and has a new habit of plunging his face into Kelsey’s belly and breathing out, creating loud staccato farting noises. He’s pretty pleased with himself.

Clawing past the capes

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

Position: 34 23.00 S, 173 2.00 E
SOG (kts): 2.5
Today started bright and well enough but quickly degenerated into “the low point” of the trip from about 10AM all the way through to Midnight. I smugly approached Cape Reinga at what I believed to be slack water, hoping to pick up the ebb currents all the way over the top of NZ and down the other side. We were in the perfect place at exactly the perfect time–it was all working out too well! But as we approached Pandora Bank, a frown crept over my face–our speed was steadily dropping…where we should have a 3 knot boost, (big tides today due to the new moon) we had a maddening 3 knots against us! It took hours and hours just to approach Cape Reinga. Our winds had gone light and on the nose, and I was forced to manually steer the boat as we crept through the tide rips. Even on a calm morning, the rips were breaking and steep. I can’t imagine being out there in really dirty weather rounding that cape with tide against wind. The charted shipwrecks I noted on the GPS scattered all about the cape attested to the fact that it’s a notorious spot. And I didn’t care for the name “Pandora Bank” either, a rather ominous beginning to the day. Thus began my 12-hour watch session of what I call “bucking the chop”. I checked and re-checked all sources of tide and current predictions, and then cursed the gods.

The top of NZ, when viewed from the deck of Privateer, resembles a giant frog’s webbed foot. There are four great high capes which resemble the toes (Cape Maria Van Diemen, Cape Reinga, Hooper Point, and North Cape) which are linked together with broad low, sandy beaches which resemble the frog’s webbing. We got an extended look at each part of the foot today, because our speed continued to suck for the entire day and night! Finally rounding Cape Reinga the wind came up in our face, 25 knots smack on the nose. There was nowhere to go but stubbornly press on. With sails reefed down we motor-sailed at 30-40 degree wind angles into the brunt of it. At first I took consolation in the fact that the tides switch every 6 hours, so we should pick up favorable current in 6 hours at the worst. That current never came. It was the kind of day that puts grey hairs in a sailor’s beard. The conditions were perfectly manageable, and Kelsey and Taz were snuggled in their bunk down below oblivious to the motion above. That’s why we choose to cruise on a sea-kindly boat like Privateer. But all day long I was plagued by nagging concerns “is the wind going to go higher?” “are we going to be bashing through this shit in the dark?” “will Kelsey be ready to relieve me in 10 hours or will I have to press on at the helm?” “Damn the electric autopilot for quitting on this passage when I need it most!” If we cracked off a bit, our speed picked up to 3 knots but with the price of heeling over. If we split the wind the boat just bogged down to 1.5 to 2 knots in the choppy seas every time she hit the next wave. We cracked off, and stayed as close to the beach as we dared in the lee of the capes. I found myself wishing I were Taz that day–he was oblivious to the worry and carried on like it was any other day!

Spirits Bay and Tom Bowling Bay (two of the frog’s webs) offer protection from S and E winds, but we couldn’t anchor in there today because a NE swell was entering the bays throwing up big breakers on the beaches–not a recipe for a comfortable night’s sleep–if sleep could even be possible on a lee shore surrounded by windy capes and tossing in the swells. Press on.

By sunset I was getting pretty pissed but we finally clawed our way past North Cape, the final cape, and turned Privateer’s bow south. It being one of those days, the wind picked up even more and swing around to the E-SE, putting us on a close-haul down Great Exhibition Bay, with an eventual tack out of it to clear cape Karikari some 25 miles distant. Nevertheless, I immediately set the wind vane, sheeted the head-sails tight, and thanked the heavens for the break from the tiller. It had just taken us like 12 hours to go 28 NM, and we paid for it with my aching muscles and loads of diesel fuel spent. Ugh.

We managed to pick up an internet signal after sunset, and my spirits were lifted as I downloaded detailed point forecasts for our location ( is awesome) and saw that there was some light at the end of the tunnel. By 3am, the winds lightened up to 15 knots–not too much and plenty of wind to keep sailing with the wind-vane. I was tired but elated. I took a hot shower. I ate some chocolate. I did the dishes. I organized below-decks and squared away above-decks. You know, all the regular things sailors do when they’re not pinned to the helm! By daybreak I’d been up for 24 hours and we aimed Privateer straight for the mouth of Whangaroa Harbour, with the promise of a safe haven and a solid sleep.

Sea Routines

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

Position: 36 19.00 S, 172 54.00 E
SOG (kts): 5.4
We’re back in the swing of it today, rolling across blue fields of sparkling swell & gentle seas. The Tasman Sea is an electric aquamarine color with tinges of purple now that we are in water thousands of feet deep again. Taz is scooting around the boat and doing his best to teach himself to stand on his sea legs. We’ve all gotten a good sleep now that Privateer is steering herself again, with plenty of time to clean up below-decks, relax, read books with Taz, and listen to music. Made a new batch of fresh drinking water with our watermaker & topped up the tanks. We are only 100 NM from the top of the North island now. I had to sift through a lot of weather reports to put ourselves in this particular place at this particular time. The winds are constantly changing in these latitudes, and it’s all about timing! So far it has been an excellent passage in fair weather, while other parts of NZ are experiencing heavy gales and rainstorms. We’ll probably have another session of hand-steering tomorrow afternoon when the winds are forecast to go light. But afterwards they are forecast to pipe up to just 15 knots out of the NE as we make our way down the East coast, probably on a close-haul for 100 NM or so. Taz is squealing with delight watching the tiller move back & forth by the Monitor wind vane–a constant source of entertainment! Taz sailing over the Tasman Sea… We are reading through our cruising guides and dreaming of the seas & lands we will sail to next.

Freedom on the high seas

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

Position: 37 55.00 S, 173 4.00 E
SOG (kts): 6.5
Remarkable wildlife sightings in the last 24-hours. Last evening a seal leapt out of the water beside the boat, playing just like a dolphin. It was almost like those acrobatic trained seals, except this one wasn’t expecting a treat. Several massive albatross cart-wheeled over the glassy swell early this morning. They glide millimeters up and dpwn the wave surface without even touching the water. They almost appear to make contact with their wing-tips and I watched for a trail in the water as one whooshed right by the boat to check me out, but I didn’t see any trails. The wings were actually vibrating with the minute wavelets on the swell, like running your fingers across a chain-link fence, but without the fingers touching. Last night when Kelsey came down off the night watch, she reported that she’d smelled whale breath (we know the smell very well from Alaska). I smelled it too about an hour later. And at daybreak, I spotted a massive plume from a whale’s blow on the near horizon. Suddenly 6 pilot whales cut out of the swell in a line, hunting. This area is known for its Pilot whales, which are threatened by the seismic testing from the oil rigs. The Pilot whales reminded me of miniature Orca whales, with their dorsals cutting the waves. The whales were increasingly aggressive until a huge boiling of whitewater erupted about 50 yards behind Privateer. A massive whale appeared, about 4 times the length of the Pilot whales and the size of a school bus. The leviathan rolled onto its side and barreled down a large swell. When his head came out of the water it was the classic bluff-bowed shape of a Sperm whale! Its forehead plunged into the trough of the next swell and that was all I saw of it, but the Pilot whales continued to dart around the Sperm whale. Perhaps they were fighting for the same fish, or each other, I do not know. We always see something we’ve never seen on every sail! Our west-southwest breeze finally sprung up this afternoon and we are silently clipping along at 6 knots with the Monitor windvane (finally!) taking control of the steering. It was a long, tedious hand-steering session last night without the electric autopilot in swells but no wind. I had to have a “3 o’clock (AM) Coke” and listen to loud dance music to stay focused on the compass. Fortunately we are in the higher latitudes and it is almost the longest day of the year here, so despite it being a new moon and an otherwise black night, there remained a constant twilight glow throughout the sky all night long, and it was possible to make out the line of swell where the sea met the sky. After we shut the engine down and got the servo-steering back on line, Kelsey said “We got the boat back!” Yes, it is very liberating sailing down the blue highway again. We celebrated with hot deck showers with the left-over hot water from the engine loop, and ate an obligatory lucky Pineapple for lunch. I am also carrying a box of Ritz crackers and leftover “Fruto” jelly from Fiji in rememberance of my sail here with my Dad last year–but I won’t eat these unless we fall on hard times and bad weather! Kelsey and I are figuring out everything we need for Taz on the ocean on this sea trial. We tried to find people on the internet doing similar stuff, but most of it it written from a marina live-aboard perspective. We’re solving all kinds of problems and have a few good ideas. We’ve found that we absolutely need a playpen area for Taz that we can stick him into and leave him to his own devices while we set sails & tend to the boat etc. Instead of buying a playpen we are simply going to raise and extend one of our lee-cloths, and Taz will have a giant padded area to romp in when we are busy. For the moment, having Taz on the boat is like having an extra helm–someone’s hands are always on the tiller. This, combined with our lack of electric autopilot right now, means that we have two helms that need constant attention. Going to the bathroom, cooking, relaxing, and sleeping are not possible unless Taz is sleeping and one of us can go off-watch with him. We’re looking forward to returning to the trade-winds in May and clocking away auto-miles while Taz plays in his new pen! Then, Kelsey and I will be freed from one helm, and our other little helm will be sleeping about 1/2 the day, giving us approximately 65% freedom with our time during the day & night to do as we please. We are currently 95% tied up at the moment with about 5% freedom as we sort things out… Taz perked right up today when the winds picked up, releasing a massive poop as we trimmed the sails. He’s very relaxed in the waves and grips tight when the boat heels with the swells. He did, after all, cross the whole Pacific in the womb already! It is a motion he knows well. Sometimes he looks at points on the horizon or the boat and starts laughing and pointing. We can’t figure out what he’s looking at or why it makes him so happy. It it weren’t very cute, it would be kind of creepy. We should have about 48 hours of good following winds, and we hope to gain Cape Reinga and North Cape at the top of the island before they switch around. We’re just over 1/2 way up the west coast from Nelson now, with 209 NM to go before turning south around the top. Blue skies and sparkling seas–life is good!

Across the back of the sleeping giant

Monday, January 11th, 2016

Position: 39 19.00 S, 173 4.00 E
SOG (kts): 5.5
Last night the Easterly haboob settled down to a nice 10-15 knot breeze, and I shot out of bed just as daylight broke to scan the horizon. The anchorage was alive with amazing bird calls echoing among the hills. The bird calls on NZ mornings are remarkable–Kelsey and I think they sound like UFOs or strange avatar birds from a sci-fi. Out toward Farewell Spit, the water was ruffled and stirred, blowing nicely on a beam course. Privateer was ready. Unfortunately, the electric autopilot was not ready! I tried to do a quick wiring fix before we left the anchorage but to no avail. It’s been acting up for some time now and I probably should’ve gotten a new one immediately upon arrival in NZ… alas, these things always crap out at the worst possible moment! The winds were light enough later on (7-8 kts) that with all sails set and the engine running, we can use the big Monitor blade to steer the boat with the servo-pendulum. But as soon as the winds drop to light, which they are forecast to do tonight and tomorrow…we will have to hand-steer. We are looking forward to 24 hrs from now, when the west-south-westerlies are supposed to fill in behind the high. At the moment, we are on it’s leading edge and the winds grow more fickle by the hour… What a contrast to the Tasman Sea that my Dad and I sailed last October! Where there were raging walls of white-water before, are now calm plans of riffled seas and sparkling sunshine. Our electric autopilot failure is small change compared to the atrocities of the inbound voyage before. Our goal is to get the “Stephens” weather forecast zone astern of us before she piles up the seas again, which she is forecast to do. With no intentions of a repeat, we are piling on all sail & steam to make northbound progress away from it once and for all. (Pause–Taz just pooped and I must retire to the poop deck momentarily…) Ok…that was a big one! Taz is all smiles now that he’s worked out his first poop at sea. Anyway, we will hopefully only have 24 hours or so of hand-steering before the Monitor can be set again, engine switched off, and a downwind course shaped for the northern tip of NZ. The winds that will hopefully carry us there are rushing northward to fill the low as cyclone Tuni makes her way southward toward NZ as she weakens. For now, our “motor-monitor” is working well enough, keeping us a few miles on either side of the line with occasional tweaking. We’re passing through a field of offshore oil rigs tonight. At first, I was alarmed when I saw what I thought was a flare, and then realized it was a giant tower sticking up out of the ocean, with a massive flame-head. It was a very strange sight! As the sun sets we can see various flames and platforms lit up like miniature cities.

Taz’s first sail!

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

Position: 40 57.19 S, 173 3.42 E
SOG (kts): 0.0
We finally departed Nelson Harbor this morning, early, at the first hint of orange under the high clouds. Privateer has been chained to her dock for too long! An almost fifteen-month spell at the dock–longer than most prison sentences… We immediately felt the freedom of the seas again as we watched Nelson shrink into the distance. I said a quiet thank-you and farewell to the city, which provided excellent medical care for Taz’s birth, and a good safe-haven for Privateer while we were away from her. Nelson protected our beloved Privateer and gave Taz the best chance upon entering his new life!

Taz had his first-ever sail today! We unfurled the yankee and had a nice downwind 20-mile run in 20 knot SW winds to Torrent Bay on the Abel Tasman Park coast. After watching me for awhile, Taz put his hand next to mine on the tiller and cocked a weather-eye into the wind. It was one of the happiest moments of my life when he looked up at me and gave me a big smile as we were steering the boat. He was looking at the sails, listening to the VHF weather reports, and generally being a happy crew.

We are tucked into Torrent Bay now, with a commanding view out to Farewell Spit, where we will wait for favorable conditions before sailing out into the Roaring 40s. The bay was hot today, with an atmosphere like Coney Island. As this is the only real anchorage anywhere near Nelson, everyone crams in here. Water taxis disgorged hordes of kayakers all day long while sunburned people thronged the beach. Not exactly my cup of tea, but we do appreciate the shelter–in the very late afternoon we observed another “haboob” sweep the straits, just as it did with my Dad and I last October. It was blowing a solid 25-30 out of the West today, when suddenly that eerie sweeping gray-green cloud swept in from the east, throwing the wind right around 180 degrees and in minutes it was ripping out of the East at 25-30 knots. What a relief to watch this phenomenon from the safety of the anchorage this time, rather than being caught out in it like last year! It is gnarly out there, that body of water–a superior force to be respected.

Tomorrow the winds are forecast to drop to variable 10 knots in the afternoon as a ridge builds over NZ, and I’m thinking we’ll just motor-sail across this damn Strait and get further North as fast as we can, and try to pick up the south-westerly winds that are blowing nicely up there. We’ll see if the forecast holds…

It’s always nice to depart the port and spend a night or two on the hook before setting out to sea. After the crazy cluttered busy-ness of being on shore, it’s nice to take stock of the boat and settle back into the sea routines. Taz and I squared the decks for sea today, lashing gear, rigging preventers, and cleaning up the lines. Taz “helped” with the mainsheet and inadvertently tied his first knot today–a half-hitch! I discovered the hitch as I re-coiled the mainsheet. He was really going at it! Good job Taz. Kelsey cooked up a great dinner tonight and did a superb job with Taz today–he’s getting his fourth tooth now and was asking for a bit more attention. His Mom gave him lots of tenderness all day!!

Awaiting the Low

Monday, January 4th, 2016

The accepted tactic for sailing up the West Coast of the North Island is to wait for a low to pass through (from East to West) and then ride up the backside of the low as the Southwesterly winds fill in behind it. We’ve got a pretty good forecast for this scenario, with a low blowing through this Wed-Thurs.

As it’s bad luck to leave on a Friday, we’ll probably wait until shortly after Midnight, and leave Nelson Harbor in the wee hours of the morning (like 1AM) on Saturday. This way, we’ll have the advantage of covering the protected waters of the Abel Tasman Bay during the dark hours, and poke our nose into the Tasman Sea at sunrise, passing Farewell Spit with a whole day of daylight to get accustomed to being at sea again. The Southwesterlies should hold out well for a day or two–if all goes according to plan–and then die out to light as we near the top of the North Island. All in all, it’s about 420 miles from Nelson Harbor to the top of the North Island, so we should expect to be at sea for 3 days before turning the corner, and then another day or so of coasting until we tuck into the flat water of the Bay of Islands.

We’ve tentatively secured a private dock up the winding KeriKeri river, deep within the bay, where Privateer can lay alongside for the remainder of her days in NZ (until around April-May). It looks like a nice peaceful spot and we’ll check it out when we get there!

We are excited and a bit nervous about Taz’s first sail. It will be a good sea trial for Taz, out there on the Tasman Sea! He’s a West Coast sailor right from the get-go. We’re hoping to learn as much as we can on this sail, so we know what to bring with us on our continuing journey to Vanuatu, Australia, and beyond, when we really leave civilization behind again! The sail up the West coast of the North Island will be short enough to be manageable, but not too long, and exposed enough to really put up a solid sea-trial, rather than just dinking aound in the bays.

Our last days here in Nelson are filled with boat provisioning, systems-checks and re-checks, re-tuning the rig, inspecting gear, re-examining offshore procedures, and keeping a sharp eye on the forecast. We are mostly ready to go save for a few minor chores. Our family is returning to the sea!!

–Nelson Harbor, Jan 5, 2016