Baba BarAnn Around the Pacific


Chapter 15 - New Zealand

Passage to New Zealand

Each cruiser is faced with an important decision - where to spend the South Pacific hurricane season, which runs approximately from November through April. A few stay in Samoa, Tonga, New Caledonie, or Suva, where the harbors provide good, although not total, protection from the one or two hurricanes per year. The majority head south to New Zealand, while a few bypass NZ and head to Australia. Those with cats on board, like Carina, and the few dog owners, don't have a "southern option," due to the laws and costs which make keeping a pet on board impractical Down Under.

For us the choice was easy. We'd always wanted to go to New Zealand, we'd seen enough of third world countries for one year, and we didn't want to take any unnecessary risks with hurricanes. The heat and humidity of the tropics is pleasant during their winter, but uncomfortable during their summer. Like migrating birds, the paths of cruising boats each season are quite predictable. At the end of the hurricane season, in March or April, most species set sail from the Pacific west coast, or flock through the Panama Canal, and head for the Marquesas and then Papeete. From July through October their paths diverge, with many varied itineraries, but always slowly working their way west with the trade winds. Now it's time once again to converge for the hurricane season. They cluster in Suva, Fiji and Nuku'alofa, Tonga, deciding when to take flight for the 1,100 mile passage south. Leave too early and you might be hit on the face by a late winter storm out of the Tasman Sea. Leave too late and you might get hit from behind by an early hurricane sweeping down from the Coral Sea. The cruisers must also confront head winds and cool temperatures for the first time since last March.

Like other rites of passage, the passage to New Zealand is often a bonding experience for cruisers. Instead of fattening up and flying in formation like birds, we reprovision our boats and head off, one by one, when the time "is right." We check into the roll call each night, informing the net controller of our lat/lon and weather conditions, check the progress of our friends, and hope that tomorrow's forecast is favorable. For the first day of the passage the wind and waves are up, as we beat to the west of Kandavu Island, the last land we'll see until NZ. Checking into the net that night we're pleased to hear that Amazing Grace, another Baba 40, has left Tonga that day and is likewise heading to Opua. We hadn't seen Mike and Carla since August in Huahine.

Although they're 450 miles southeast of us, they're the same distance to NZ. Based on their check-in lat/lon at 0430Z, we calculate that they are 977.8 miles from Opua, while we're 996.9. They have a 19.1 mile lead, and the race is on! Even with 20-25 knot winds, the next day we lose 9 miles to them. We sail 160 miles on both day 3 and day 4, but only pick up 12 miles. As is our practice on all long passages, we've taped a chart on the walls of Baba BarAnn. Actually it's not much more than a grid with latitude and longitude in 5 degree segments printed out on our computer. We plot our progress, as well as others in the vicinity. Our chart on the wall shows the two boats heading south, converging on New Zealand. Then the killer. Day 5. We sail 157 miles in steady 12-18 knot winds while they get stalled out in a big high. From minus 16 miles we go PLUS 30!

There are about 50 boats out here, heading from Tonga-Fiji-New Caledonie south to New Zealand-Australia, that check in each night to one of two ham nets. Just 300 miles to the west, one boat is hove to in 40-50 knot winds, while others are motoring in calms. The worst happens just 90 miles behind us, perhaps the closest boat to us. They were just rammed by a whale, mid-ship. Even though it was one of the stoutest cruising yachts out here, a Westsail 32, there was much structural damage done. Most of the furniture inside was broken. Luckily the hull wasn't harmed, they weren't injured, and they continued on to Opua. They noticed a lot of blood in the water from the whale, but apparently he swam on.

Our "game plan" to New Zealand took us much further west than the other cruisers'. This would give us a faster point of sail for the first half of the passage. Three hundred miles straight north of New Zealand we would be set up for the anticipated westerly winds south of latitude 30, that the pilot charts had predicted for this time of year. Unfortunately, the westerlies never came, and we were forced to beat into SSE winds in order to fetch NZ. For three straight days we beat into the wind and waves, with the wind 40-60 degrees off the port bow. Pound, pound. One day we could make no "easting" and were concerned about being blown into the Tasman Sea. It wasn't comfortable, but we were moving.

Finally, the wind swung around to the East, allowing us to point toward our destination. Later, just 100 miles out from Opua, the wind died completely, and we turned on the motor for the first time. On a glassy sea we powered south, racing to reach Opua before night fall. Into the Bay of Islands we turned, greeted by the green hills of northern New Zealand and the most beautiful sunset we'd seen in months. A nice wind came up, so we rolled out the headsail to give us some extra speed.

It was perfect. We were as excited as kids the night before Christmas. With the last fading rays of the day, we pulled up to the custom's dock. We'd made the 1,100 mile trip in 7 days and 9 hours. Fantastic! We'd averaged 148 miles per day, or 6.2 knots. The next day at noon, Amazing Grace pulled up along side of us. Their 8 day passage was quite respectable; almost everyone else takes 9 or 10 days for the trip. We still haven't heard of any cruising boat that's matched our numbers. Sure it's nice to go fast and have a quick passage. But the real reason is to get off those waters as soon as possible and minimize the chance of an ugly storm. Two days after we arrived in Opua, the cruisers behind us were dealing with 30-35 knots, 12 foot seas, and generally nasty weather.>

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As every sailor from the Pacific Northwest can't help but remark, the Bay of Islands in New Zealand is just like Puget Sound. This is the first cool weather we've encountered since arriving in San Francisco, 14 months ago. The skies are often gray, and, yes, it rains a bit. We dig out the long pants, sweatshirts, and even undershirts. For the first time in 7 months we're not going barefoot on the boat. We even have a blanket on the bed. Burr! The temperature barely reaches 70 degrees during the "heat of day."

Our first impression of New Zealand, its similarity to the Pacific Northwest, was quickly overwhelmed by another, stronger impression . . . the friendliness of the Kiwi's. The health official (Ministry of Agriculture and Fish) was with us until 10 PM on a Friday night, making sure we weren't carrying any egg shells, honey, seeds, fruit, or vegetables which might foul their disease-free country. He even checked our sneakers in the closet and had us clean off the mud from one pair. Just a government employee, working late on the weekend. He still had an hour's drive back to his home, yet he was as friendly as could be. Likewise for the harbor master, working seven days a week this time of year when all the "yachties" come to New Zealand.

The next surprise was that our mail was waiting for us, at the little post office at the end of the dock. And we thought we had a fast passage to Opua. The mail took only five days from Colorado. We welcomed the first laundromat since Apia with a gigantic sail bag full of clothes. Stores had a large selection of everything. After learning how to convert NZ$ per kilo to US$ per pound (just multiply by .3), we got used to the prices. They're just about the same as the US. Meat, and especially lamb, is a little cheaper, while chicken and vegetables are a little more expensive. The quality is good. They have the very best oranges I've ever tasted. Sweet and seedless Keri Keri oranges far better than anything from California or Florida. It's hard to decide whether or not I like them more than the pamplemousse in Polynesia.

One surprise that I could have done without occurred the second day in New Zealand, while we were still tied up to the custom's dock. I was at the bow, adjusting fenders and spring lines to handle the tides when I heard a splash behind me. I hadn't paid much attention to about five local Maori kids, 7-12 years old, who had been playing on the dock, running about. I thought the water was too cold for swimming. When I turned around, I saw a young boy thrashing about with a panicked look on his face. I quickly grabbed a line and held it out to him, and then towed him to a nearby ladder. He was really scared and surely would have drowned had I not been standing right there at the time he accidentally slipped off the dock. It's scary being that close to death. I hope he now has some incentive to learn how to swim this summer.

Earlier this month, Chuck had likewise fished a young girl out of the harbor in Suva after she'd slipped off the dock. Opua is the main port of entry for cruising sailors, and the harbor was packed with boats arriving for the hurricane season. It's almost like "old home week," as friends get together for the first time in months, after miles of sailing.

This year there were 170 people at the big "Turkey Day" feast put on by the Opua Cruising Club. To make non-Americans comfortable, they don't call it Thanksgiving, but the traditional food is the same. I don't think the Kiwi's eat cranberries, but the local stores were wise enough to stock up on a few pricey jars of Ocean Spray's finest, about $2.30 for a little 6 oz. jar. Although the clubhouse was very crowded, it was a fun "Turkey Day."The next morning we were greeted by the Custom's patrol boat, and their dope sniffin' dog. The dog gave our boat a thorough search and became very excited, wiggling his tail and pointing to the drawer that contains our sea-sick medication. After the pills and scopolamine patches were withdrawn, he was still wiggling. Then we found out what he was really after . . . our walrus mask. Candace bought a rubber walrus face mask before Halloween last year, and still dons it when things need to be lightened up. So once more the mask produced a good laugh.

We still maintain a weekly "sked" with Chuck on Carina. While we're acclimating to the cooler and rainier weather here, it's getting pretty hot in Fiji. On the 28th of November, hurricane Sena passed just 25 miles south of Suva, and we were anxious to hear how they survived. He was anchored in a good spot, had everything tied down, and didn't have any problems. Several times there were gusts over 60 knots. How much higher he didn't know since his instruments don't measure any higher. While there are now 50-70 cruising boats here in Opua, there are only a dozen or fewer in Fiji. It's no wonder.

After completion of a few minor projects, we'll be heading south to Auckland. Our month in the Bay of Islands has been fun. We've especially enjoyed spotting new birds which are unique to New Zealand. Our sea legs have been getting a good workout on long walks. When the weather's been "pookie," I've been programming the computer to play bridge.   Later, when it's learned lots of fancy bidding conventions, I'll "teach" the computer how to play the hands a lot better than it does now. We've found a few other cruisers to play bridge with, and that's been fun.>

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Bay of Islands

Peaceful anchorage - Bay of Islands
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After reading about how great "the Bay" was supposed to be, we were eager to find out. It really is a great place. We spent seven weeks there. We kept trying to leave, but we'd head off to another island, spend several days, then head off to another. Then it was back to Russell or Opua to do laundry and stock up on food, and do it all over again.

The weather was perfect, and we had to share our beautiful lagoons with only one or two other boats. Sometimes the hills would be populated with sheep and/or cattle. Other times, just the beautiful and unique flora of New Zealand; Pohotakawa trees in bloom with their bright red, feathery blossoms, Norfolk pines with perfect geometry stretching to the sky, Kiwi birds calling at night, gannets and shags diving for fish during the day. We'd go for walks or try to catch some fish. Somehow the time flew. The Bay is similar to the San Juans, with several small islands all protected from the swell of the open ocean. The only other area that we've been to that comes close to the Bay of Islands was Vava'u in Tonga. >

We would have stayed longer, but hoards of New Zealanders were about to leave Auckland for summer vacation. Nice bays with white sandy beaches that we have completely to ourselves are going to be inundated with perhaps 60 vacationing Kiwi boats, per lagoon. So on December 20th we headed south, dodging that pack heading north. We made it  to Gulf Harbour Marina  in two days. >

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Laundromats, cleanliness, potable water, hardware stores and marine stores. Except for two weeks in Suva, we've spent every night for the last 16 months, swinging at the end of our anchor or sailing the high seas. Now we're tied up nice and snug at the dock. Best of all we don't have to get into the dinghy to go to shore. Except for the marina cost, which is one-third of Seattle's, everything else in N.Z. costs, on the average, a little bit more than in "the States." Labor is much cheaper, but materials are more expensive. The Gulf Harbour Marina, an hour's drive north of Auckland, is only a few years old and quite nice. There is security 24 hours a day with the gate to the parking lot being raised and lowered by the security guard. The cost is only $125US per month, including all the 240 VAC/ 50 hertz electricity you can use. >

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Hidden Charges

A neighboring boat said we could use his step down transformer to get 120 volts out of their 240 volt system. For some reason, I could only get 10.5 volts out of my battery charger, instead of the 13.8 - 14.1 volts needed. It took me several days to finally determine that the battery charger wasn't broken. Unfortunately, my battery charger needs 60 hertz, not 50 hertz. Most chargers aren't picky about 50 or 60 hertz, but mine is. It has a big 660 watt capacitor (6.9 micro-farads) which it uses for regulation. Somehow, the different frequency of the AC here confuses the voltage regulation of the charger. We just have one plug on board that's set up for direct AC. In Seattle I rewired our boat so that all the other AC plugs get their AC electricity indirectly, using our inverter and energy from the DC batteries.

So now we have all this "free" electricity at the marina, and only one plug. I could do some more rewiring, but it's not worth it since we only have a few AC appliances. The only thing we NEED shore power for is our microwave oven, and that need is pretty small. In Seattle we spent lots of money on a Webasto diesel heater for the boat, and it hasn't worked for two years. It was a low priority repair job since we were cruising in the tropics. With lots of help from a good  friend, Rainer on Rolling Home,  we completely dismantled our heater and repaired it. It was a full day project. It's better than new now. Much of the problem can be traced to a mistake in installation. (The fuel pick-up tube was resting on the bottom of the diesel fuel tank, where it soon got clogged by any impurities from the fuel.) That's the kind of project I never would have considered before. I now feel competent to fix all systems on the boat, except the engine and the refrigerator. They're both working perfectly, so there's been no need to pick up that knowledge and experience, although I do all the maintenance of the diesel myself. On some mornings the temperature gets down to the fifties, so it's nice to turn on the heat. By midday the temperature is in the upper 70's. There has been extremely little rain, just a few sprinkles now and then, but the wind whips up to 30 knots about one afternoon per week. >

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Driving in New Zealand

The Kiwi's are very friendly people, even though they speak funny and drive on the wrong side of the road. We bought a car last week. It's a 1981 Nissan Pulsar, four door hatch back with 132,000 kilometers on it (82,000 miles). Most second hand cars, like the one we bought, are bought and sold at weekend "car fairs" in Auckland. Four months' insurance only cost $40US. We'll sell our car before leaving, and probably spend about $200US total to use a car for four months.The slogan here among cruisers with cars is "Look right, Think left!" After a short while, I got used to the stick shift in my left hand, and driving on the left, but I still flip on the windshield (oops, windscreen) wipers with my left hand, instead of the turn signal with my right hand, whenever I want to turn. It gets confusing entering a traffic circle (round-about), spinning around clockwise, and trying to get off on the correct side of the road once you've figured out which road you want. Gas (petrol) costs $1.06NZ per liter. That works out to about $2.40US per gallon, with 1$NZ = .60US. The Kiwi's are terrible tailgaters, and continually pass on hills and blind corners. It's scary just being on the road with them. I use to think that Boston had the worst drivers. >

Driving back from Auckland the other day, a large rock came flying out of the truck ahead of us, and hit the "windscreen." BANG! In a fraction of a second the entire windshield had broken into little pieces, making it impossible for me to see out. They use safety glass here, so it didn't shatter into the car. Laminated glass which is used in the U.S. would have only left a "bullet hole" in the windshield. Anyway, it cost about $150US to fix, and shook me up just a little. Of course the truck was long gone and we had to foot the entire bill. Luckily, we weren't hurt and a garage which replaces glass was only a mile or so away. Make that $350 for four months use of the the car.>

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