Sailing NC to NZ

As my second week in New Caledonia began, Skipper Tom made the call: The weather looks good for departure!

We checked out of the country, with Tom and Di handling all of the paperwork with Immigration and Customs. After a final sleep on stable land, we cast of the lines and headed south!

We sailed about 60 miles down the coast of New Caledonia, staying between land and the outer reefs, which protected us from the big swells that had been kicked up by several days of constant easterly wind. This was all part of the plan – to let the seas settle a bit as we sailed within the reef’s protection. (Note: The 60 miles is measured as a direct line on the chart. Our actual sailing route was longer due to wind direction and obstacles like reefs and islands!)

When we reached Ile Des Pins, we then headed out through the reef and into the South Pacific Ocean.

As we entered open water, the wind was still fresh and the swells were still big. We had about 24 hours of pretty intense sailing. We were prepared though. We had pre-made simple sandwiches that we could snack on, without any time-consuming (and perhaps seasick-inducing) preparation below deck. We set aside cup-of-soups, too, which is another classic bad-weather staple. We divided ourselves into watches, with two people sleeping and two people sailing. Then we switched every three hours.

The wind and seas began to settle down after that first day in open water. But then it settled down a bit too much -- down to single digits. Meanwhile, the sea state, which generally takes a bit longer to settle down, still rocked the boat with two- to three-meter swells.

These conditions didn’t allow us to sail at a productive speed, so we furled the headsail and turned on the engine. (We kept the mainsail hoisted because it acted as a stabilizer with the swells, helping to minimize rolling.)

Wait. What do I mean by productive speed? I’ll try to explain briefly.

The passage is a bit like a game of dodge ball. At this time of year, low-pressure systems spin out of the Tasman Sea every 5-10 days, passing directly over the cruising route between New Zealand and the islands. These systems bring high winds and rain, and kick up big seas. We don’t want to be in the way!

On these passages, we try to leave just as one low-pressure system is passing over the route. We try “shoot the gap” and make it to New Zealand before the next low-pressure system develops.

So, on average, let’s say we have 7 days to make the 1,000-mile sail south. That’s an average of 144 miles per day, or 6 miles per hour. (For sailing, we do this calculation in nautical miles and knots per hour – but the results are similar enough for illustrative purposes.)

If the conditions are such that we can’t sail at 6 miles per hour, we can drift for a bit or play around with light wind sails, but at some point we have to get moving. We’ll turn on the engine and motor at 6 miles per hour to make sure we are progressing against our overall goal, and staying ahead of the next low-pressure system that will inevitably develop.

Hopefully that gives some context for “productive speed.”

Now, one of the many challenges is we don’t carry enough fuel to simply motor the entire 1,000 miles. Even if we had the fuel, there’s no guarantee the sea state would allow us to motor at that speed. Big seas, in particular, slow us down.

Tom is constantly monitoring our fuel usage (among many other things), balancing making progress toward our destination with saving fuel for emergencies (and, if all goes well, arriving and docking in the marina!).

On this passage, as the wind settled down, we motor-sailed for over three days mid-passage. The calm conditions allowed us to cook some good meals underway, enjoy some sunsets and sunrises, and catch up on sleep.

By the end of the week, the wind picked up again, and we had a couple of days of glorious sailing! Wind was 15 knots just aft of the beam. Seas were down to 1 meter.

As we approached New Zealand, the forecast indicated a low-pressure system moving across our route. It was going to hit us right about the time we’d be approaching our destination Marsden Cove Marina. Not exactly safe conditions for closing the coast, let alone navigating a narrow channel entry.

Marsden was about 100 miles down the coast eastern coast of New Zealand, and it was our intended final destination. However, given the stormy forecast, an alternative was to make landfall sooner. Opua, in the Bay of Islands, at the northern end of the North Island, also handled check-ins. (Before setting foot on land, cruisers have to pass through Customs, Immigration, and Bio-Security checks at designated ports. Opua and Marsden both offered these services.)

After radioing the marina at Opua to confirm availability of a slip and check-in services, Skipper Tom made the decision: For safety’s sake, we’d alter course and head to Opua to wait out the storm.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Opua was no walk in the park either. It was still over 50 miles away, not including the tricky transit through the bay and into the marina. And that storm was still on its way.

We set our course for Bay of Islands, trying to outrace the storm. Just as we entered the Bay of Islands, the wind kicked up to 25 knots and the rain beat down. It was already dark and cloudy. The rain made visibility even worse.

We flipped on the bright deck lights and lit up the boat like a Christmas tree. With all-hands on deck, we go the mainsail down and set ourselves up for landing – dock lines, fenders, flashlights, binoculars, chart of the bay, etc. Then we turned off the decks lights, and let our eyes readjust to “night vision.” We slowed down to 3-4 knots of boat speed, and slowly progressed up the channel.

Our eyes strained in the dark and the rain to identify each red and green channel marker so that we could stay safely in the channel. The marina finally loomed in the distance, marked by specific flashing lights.

And then, just as the clock struck midnight, the Quarantine (Q) dock was in sight. That was where we would tie up, and await Customs, Immigration, and Bio-Security officials in the morning.

Skipper Tom took the wheel and guided us in. As we approached the dock, I stepped off and secured our spring line. Di, Nicky, and Tom worked the other lines and soon enough the boat was secure! We made it! We took off our soaking wet foul weather gear – put to good use tonight – and once in dry, warm clothes, we opened a few beers to celebrate.