Shadowed by Storms

The low appeared on the weatherfax just south of the Solomon Islands, a spawning ground for South Pacific cyclones, on day four of our passage from Fiji to New Zealand. It was late December, a month after the start of the cyclone season. We were behind schedule thanks to a broken headstay and furling system, lost parts, and challenging customs procedures. But we didn’t want to spend the cyclone season in the tropics and knew that the farther south we sailed, the safer we would be.

New Zealand is known as a safe haven for voyagers wanting to avoid South Pacific cyclones because the storms usually curve away to the east well before they reach the country. But if you read the fine print in the Defense Mapping Agency/National Imagery Mapping Agency Sailing Directions for New Zealand, you’ll find a notice that says every 30 years or so a cyclone makes its way south from the tropics. This was going to be one of those years.

On day five of our passage, the low to our northwest became a tropical cyclone named Fergus with wind speeds of 80 knots at its center, and it was heading SSE.

We expected the 1,100-mile passage from Lautoka, Fiji, to the Bay of Islands in New Zealand would take about eight to 10 days. We had enjoyed sunny, perfect trade-wind sailing our first four days, but then we entered a band of rain and strong southeasterlies that would stay with us the rest of the trip. The sky filled with dull, gray clouds, and the sea churned up icy green waves that swept over the boat with miserable regularity. But we kept bashing ahead because Fergus was persistently marching down the weatherfaxes toward us.

Christmas Day, our seventh at sea, dawned wet and windy, and with our steady pounding into headwinds, Santa stayed in bed, and the turkey stayed in the ‘fridge. We were only 200 miles from landfall, but Fergus was speeding down the slot between Vanuatu and New Caledonia at 25 knots, and it now seemed to be racing us to New Zealand.

Early on Dec. 27, after an eight-day passage, we made our final approach to the Land of the Long White Cloud (or Aotearoa in the Maori language) at Tikitiki Islet, which is the western entrance to the Bay of Islands. It is the northernmost clearance port in this 1,100-mile-long country, divided into two main islands by the Cook Strait. We tied up to the customs dock in Opua.

Fergus returns

The next morning, Fergus was back with a vengeance. Aiming directly for the Bay of Islands, the MetService weather forecast was the most disconcerting we’d ever heard: easterly winds of 60 knots, gusting 80 knots, seas phenomenal. Phenomenal? We later learned that phenomenal comes right after very high on a scale similar to Beaufort and refers to seas of 40 feet and higher. We studied the chart for a hurricane hole. We had 12 hours to tuck ourselves away into the most sheltered corner we could find.

The author and her partner arrived in the Bay of Islands from Fiji. They sailed south to Auckland, then north for a counterclockwise passage around North Island.

Wharangaere was our choice, a shallow bowl of a bay with a narrow entrance to the southwest. There were half a dozen boats already there, but with a depth of just 12 feet, we all had sufficient swinging room. We set our 60-lb CQR and our giant FX55 Fortress in the muddy bottom and spent the next few hours in building winds and pelting rain making sure everything was secure on deck. The wind howled through the night, reaching gusts of 70 knots, heeling the boat and screaming through the rigging. But our anchors held firm in the thick mud.

In the morning, Fergus was sliding away to the east. There were no reports of boats caught in phenomenal waves, but the heavy rain caused extensive flooding damage, producing landslides and road closures over most of the North Island and stranding thousands of Kiwi holiday-makers, whose traditional Christmas camping vacations were rained out. But Fergus wasn’t as severe as it might have been, tracking farther east than originally expected.

We were happy to finally be rid of it and start exploring New Zealand. Our plans were to sail south to Nelson, a well-protected northern port on the South Island, where we would leave Indigo while we backpacked our way through some of the country’s most spectacular national parks. Then at the end of the summer, in May or June, we’d sail back north to another Pacific island country. We had no idea as we planned our New Zealand circumnavigation that, starting with Fergus, we would be chased by cyclones and lows all along the way.

There were two options to consider for sailing south: down the east coast or the west. Each route has it own challenges, including five capes, Cook Strait and the unusual geographical contours that create “rivers of wind and puddles of calm,” according to New Zealand meteorologist Bob McDavitt, a veteran of two America’s Cup campaigns who has been advising sailors about weather conditions around the country and the Southwest Pacific for years.

During their voyage, they endured the three storms that charged down on New Zealand.

In order to go down the west coast, we would first have to sail north around North Cape, Cape Reinga and Cape Maria van Diemen, with their notorious currents and overfalls. Once past the capes, there is no safe anchorage for 280 miles. With the predominantly westerly winds, we would be on a lee shore. Three harbors along the west coast have shoal entrances over shifting sandbars, where local knowledge is essential. So for that route, you must take a chance with the weather, hoping for a four- to five-day window of fair winds from the Tasman Sea, which was, frankly, an unlikely prospect.

The east coast offers a number of good anchorages within day-sailing distance until you reach the Bay of Plenty. This long, sweeping bay is 95 miles across and comes to an end at East Cape, where winds can accelerate into a maelstrom extending several miles from the cape. This is one of McDavitt’s rivers of wind, and he says, “Like a rip tide, the best way to get out of it is to go across.” Once around East Cape, Gisborne and Napier offer safe havens.

Then comes the tricky bit, the infamous Wairarapa Coast, where a chain of sheer mountains drops to the sea and converts the slightest westerly breeze into a gale as the wind races down the steep mountain faces. In an easterly wind, the Wairarapa is a lee shore with no anchorage for 150 miles. At the southern end of Wairarapa is Cape Palliser, where you turn northwest to sail into Cook Strait and on to Wellington Harbour.

Challenging Cook Strait

Cook Strait is a 30-mile-wide chasm between the mountain chains of the North and South islands. Winds get blocked by the mountains and funneled for hundreds of miles toward this narrow slot, where gales are common and calms are rare. Currents up to 3 knots run in some sections of the Strait and are highly irregular, changing with the wind as often as with the tide. Whichever way we tackled it, Cook Strait was going to be a challenge.

But we were going to see it all, one way or another, and had plenty to think about as we planned our voyage. First, though, we wanted to pay a visit to Auckland. But we had barely started down the coast from the Bay of Islands, past the old whaling station in Whangaruru, when more bad news appeared on the weatherfax.

Cyclone Drena was on its way. Drena was following Fergus, an alphabetical anomaly that was the result of the location where the storms were spawned. Fergus originated in Australia’s backyard, while Drena took shape in Fiji’s tracking area. We were not interested in learning about any seas bigger than moderate, so we went 12 miles inland for shelter, this time to the Town Basin at Whangarei.

As we tied off on four corners to floating rings around pilings, the weather forecasts were a repeat of Fergus: 70 knots of wind and phenomenal seas. To make matters worse, Drena would be arriving with a spring tide. It had been just 11 days since Fergus made landfall. Most of the North Island was thoroughly saturated from that storm, with tree roots already loose in the soil and riverbanks weakened by floods.

Fortunately, Drena tracked down the west coast of the North Island, dumping its heaviest rains just offshore. But that put the island in the dangerous semicircle of the storm, and the winds were more severe, ripping off rooftops, walls of houses and trees in exposed areas. Several boats were torn from their moorings in Auckland Harbour.

As we watched the rings rise, news reports told of disaster farther south on the Coromandel Peninsula, where the high tide pushed relentlessly by northerly gales had surged inland, invading dozens of homes and washing several out to sea. The tide peaked in Whangarei with two feet to spare on our pilings, but the debris washing down the river clogged the marina for several days.

Taking the northern route

We finally chose to go north and sail counterclockwise around the North Island. West about was a slightly shorter route to Nelson and let us postpone dealing with the Wairarapa Coast and battling through Cook Strait to reach our objective.

An overnight sail got us to Whangaroa, a natural and well-sheltered harbor north of the Bay of Islands, where we waited for a week to get the right weather system &mdash a big, fat, slow-moving high that was coming across the Tasman Sea.

As we sailed north past the vast beaches backed by low, rolling hills that typify the region, we spent all our time calculating the tides. We had three capes to round: North Cape, Cape Reinga and Cape Maria van Diemen. While the peak tidal flow at North Cape only reaches 1 knot, it can be 3 knots at Cape Reinga and 4 knots at Cape Maria van Diemen. In addition, races and overfalls were common from Cape Reinga to Maria van Diemen and on to Pandora Bank, according to the Sailing Directions.

We rounded North Cape with the west-setting flood tide and had 19 miles to sail to reach Cape Reinga. We were getting a nice boost from the tidal flow, which helped compensate for the decreasing wind as the high settled over the country and the isobars widened.

According to our calculations, it was just past slack tide when we approached Cape Reinga, so we were surprised to sail into a sloppy mess of swirling currents and standing waves. We started the engine to give us a boost for the roly-poly bouncing ride, as we skirted the shallow Columbia Bank and wobbled three miles southwest to pass Cape Maria van Diemen. An uncomfortable hour later, we were inside Pandora Bank and clear of the turbulent currents, but we were fighting a light northerly flow.

The three capes originally formed the corners of a volcanic island that was separated from the mainland by a shallow sea. Then, over a million years or so, sand was carried north by submarine currents, slowly filling in the sea and building up long sand spits that eventually connected the two. Today, just south of Cape Maria van Diemen is Ninety-Mile Beach, an endless shoreline of white sand backed by rounded dunes covered in flax and grasses, where the sand continues to build up the land.

We now were on a two-day 280-mile dash south, hoping the high would remain slow-moving to keep the weather settled and calm until we at least reached New Plymouth, the next safe anchorage. It didn’t disappoint us, although we motor-sailed much of the time because the winds were so light.

We were 30 miles offshore as we passed New Plymouth with its landmark 8,000-foot-tall Mount Taranaki. The early morning sun backlit the perfect volcanic cone of this impressive mountain, permanently topped with snow and ice and sparkling above a ring of clouds. The forecast was still good; we couldn’t believe our luck as the high was still with us, and we began the final leg of our passage across the wide western entrance to Cook Strait and on to Tasman Bay.

In the early hours of the following morning we ghosted past the 15-mile-long sandbank that ends at Farewell Spit, our South Island landfall at the entrance to Tasman Bay. A school of dolphins accompanied us as we glided on a flat sea overlaid with mist and patches of fog into a peaceful anchorage in Abel Tasman National Park.

Kayaking and hiking

The park is a popular destination for backpackers, with a well-marked four-day hiking trail along the indented coastline. We anchored there in several protected bays, paddled our kayak up tidal estuaries and out to a small island with a resident seal colony and hiked a good section of the park.

Then it was time to move on to Nelson, a sheltered harbor protected by a natural 5-mile-long boulder bank terminating in Haulashore Island. A break between the boulder bank and the island is the entrance to the busy commercial port.

We were then halfway around the North Island and had successfully reached our objective. It was time to take a break from our voyaging adventures and explore the South Island by land.

While we were hiking in the rainforest, the third cyclone of the season came charging south from the tropics. Gavin formed just north of Fiji and wreaked devastation in that island country’s western region, destroying nearly all of the crops and homes in the Yasawa islands with damage estimated near $18 million. Then it plunged south to New Zealand. Tracking down the east side of the North Island, it struck hardest in the Bay of Plenty and farther south in Hawke’s Bay. Fortunately, the high also turned the cyclone away from New Zealand, and it headed east, back to sea.

By early May, we were back on Indigo, getting ready for the second half of our circumnavigation. We would be facing some of the more challenging waters of New Zealand. Our route would take us east through the Marlborough Sounds and then out Tory Channel into Cook Strait and across to Wellington. From there we would wait for a weather window to get around Cape Palliser and up the Wairarapa Coast.

But first we had to negotiate French Pass, the channel leading from Tasman Bay past D’Urville Island and into the Marlborough Sounds. French Pass is 100 yards wide and cuts between a deep shoreline on one side and a shallow, rocky shelf extending almost unbroken a quarter mile to the opposite bank. The water level on the north side of the pass is 2 to 3 feet higher than that on the south, so ripping currents, eddies and a large whirlpool are regular features of the passage. The currents reach 5 to 7 knots and slack water lasts about 20 minutes. It is not advisable to go with the current because the tidal eddies have a well-established reputation for spinning boats out of control. Nor is it advisable to go against the current, unless you’re capable of boat speeds above 9 knots.

We could still see eddies on the south side of the pass as we approached, meaning the tide was flowing against us, so we backed away and waited until they seemed less turbulent. Half and hour later, with white knuckles and a full throttle, we plowed ahead, first making about 7 knots, gradually slowing to 6, then 5, with water churning and spinning around us, and finally as we came abreast of the lighthouse marking the end of the rock ledge, we were barely making 4 knots. A few moments later we were through and gaining speed. On to the Marlborough Sounds!

Gusts and calms

A labyrinth of waterways divided by steep, tree-clad mountains, the sounds are full of gusts and calms, making sailing through the area a challenge. Strong winds are accelerated dramatically by the mountains but can be very localized or disperse quickly, so that in some cases, it is better to sail along the lee shore rather than on the windward side, where the gusts come rushing down the mountains.

We only stopped for two nights in the sounds, as the cooler winter weather was setting in and we needed to get north. Anchoring in the sounds is tricky with williwaws gusting down the mountainsides. Meteorologist McDavitt had good advice: “Always check the ridge line first. If there aren’t any trees, there’s a reason. It’s too bloody windy!” But with another high-pressure area overhead, the nights were calm, and we hoped it would give us fair winds to cross Cook Strait. We sailed in the early morning down Tory Channel to take advantage of the ebbing tide, which averages 4 knots in the center of the channel and 7 at the entrance to Cook Strait. We were hugging the edge of the channel for the final dogleg, when one of the Interislander ferries loomed up from behind and chased us out into Cook Strait.

Dire warnings

The Sailing Directions are filled with dire warnings and descriptions about the strait: “The tidal currents in and around Cook Strait are unreliable, often running in one direction for eight to 10 hours. Tidal currents run quite quickly, attaining rates of 5 knots and upwards at springs, (but) are also liable to be experienced at any other time.” In addition: “High water on the west side of Cook Strait occurs about five hours later than on the east side, so that when it is high water on one side, it is nearly low water on the other.”

And that’s just the water flow. The wind adds another layer of complexity. McDavitt, who has studied New Zealand weather for 30 years, explained: “Cook Strait is a burst in the dam of the mountains of New Zealand, from Fiordland right the way up through all of the Southern Alps. All of that air is connected together, and that pressure has to squirt through one small area, and it squeezes through quite fast. You can have a quiet weather map with just a general high moving across the Tasman Sea, and Cook Strait will do 25 or 30 knots &mdash a gale even.”

We had a quiet weather map the day we sailed across Cook Strait, but fortunately, only 20 knots of wind were squirting at us from the northwest. Since our course was southeast, we shot across the 25 miles on a sunny broad reach. Tide rips on the other side, leading into Wellington Harbour, had the boat rocking and rolling, but otherwise the passage was uneventful.

Wellington Harbour is a completely enclosed bowl that is known as the wind factory, because like the Marlborough Sounds, the surrounding hills tend to accelerate down to the harbor. Wellington averages 173 days a year with wind gusts greater than about 40 miles per hour.

We got a favorable forecast for the next stage of our journey and left Wellington in light northerlies. Our first leg took us back out into Cook Strait and its attendant currents, although they were much weaker as the strait opened up to the sea, and we had a nice 1-knot boost as we sailed east to Cape Palliser. We rounded the point after dark, and as we headed up the infamous Wairarapa Coast, the wind shifted around to the east.

A lee shore was disconcerting, with no shelter for the next 150 miles, but we only needed 24 hours to get past this dangerous coastline, where the steep mountains bordering the sea accelerate westerly winds into gales. Moderate easterlies had us close-reaching under clear skies on a cool, southern autumn night. The good wind held as we sailed past Castlepoint, Cape Turnagain, Blackhead and rounded Cape Kidnappers late the following day. From all accounts, we had an uncommonly mild sail past this coast. Our next destination was the town of Napier in Hawke’s Bay. From there we rounded East Cape and entered the expansive Bay of Plenty. Midway across the Bay stands White Island, an active volcano bubbling up clouds of steam that occasionally burst, shooting up over a mile into the sky. It is important that the wind is blowing the steam away from you, though, or all of the stainless steel on the boat will cloud over rapidly from the sulfur in the air.

But our plans to stop there were disrupted by a new weather feature that was showing up on the faxes. An unnamed low had made its way south from New Caledonia, gaining strength as it traveled into the subtropics. It was still north of New Zealand but was already dumping record rainfall in the far north of the country. It was due over the Bay of Plenty within 24 hours. We had a 12-hour sail ahead of us to reach Tauranga, the next protected harbor. So we bypassed White Island and its volcano, but didn’t miss out on its unmistakable sulfur fumes, which we could still smell 10 miles downwind as they wafted over the boat.

Mount Maunganui guards the entrance to Tauranga Harbour, rising 750 feet above a 20-mile-long beach on one side and a low-lying sand island on the other. The channel into the port is sandwiched between Maunganui and Matakana Island with the usual galloping currents of 5 to 7 knots and a 20-minute slack water, which is often indiscernible.

It was an anxious approach for us as we lined up for the early morning slack tide with a dozen pleasure craft and three cargo ships. The low-pressure area was continuing to work southward and was strengthening as it came. We needed to find a safe haven. We managed to sneak into the channel ahead of the cargo ships, following the range markers for the two legs into the harbor and on to the marina, where we hoped to find a slip. But there was a problem that could have meant no safety during the storm.

Sitting it out on land

“I’m very sorry, but the marina is full,” explained Bob Ellis, manager of the Tauranga marina. “There is one other option,” Bob proposed. “We have a slot available in the boatyard. We could haul you out.” It was looking like the best of several unappealing options, and we did need a new coat of bottom paint. So we decided to ride out the storm on land.

That night the low deepened to 983 millibars as it swept into the Bay of Plenty, with onshore gale-force winds and torrential rain. Our rigging was vibrating with tension as Indigo shuddered with each gust of wind blowing through the boatyard.

All we could do was sit it out and follow the track of the storm as it pounded East Cape and the Wairarapa Coast with onshore gales, triggered flash floods in Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay and brought continuous 65-knot winds to Cook Strait, causing all the ferry crossings to be cancelled as the low became stationary off Hawke’s Bay. It blew for two days and then finally drifted off to the east.

Our circumnavigation of New Zealand’s North Island was complete. We would sail north to Tonga from Tauranga, recrossing our track just east of Auckland. Our voyage was safe and enjoyable, largely due to patience, slow-moving highs, the careful timing of tides and currents, and well-sheltered harbors. Like Capt. Cook, we knew we wanted to return to the country to learn more. But next time, with any luck, the cyclones will stay away.

Allyson Madsen and Jens P. Jeager are voyaging in the South Pacific aboard their 1982 Whitby 42, Indigo.

By Ocean Navigator