Clawing past the capes

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.

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