There is nothing quite as wonderful as the feel of an able sailing vessel when she has a perfect wind on a wide-open sea. We’d planned to spend a relaxed and enjoyable week celebrating a friends 70th birthday at Great Barrier Island then sail back to our home base at Kawau Island thirty miles to the west-south-west. But the weather forecast for the next week was for fresh southwesterly winds and lots of sunshine.
Nurtured by years of voyaging where the dates on our calendar marked the beginning and end of cyclone season and plans were only guidelines, I looked in the almost empty ice chest, realized we had canned and packaged food on board to last far more than a week and decided, why go to windward when you can have a grand broad reach. We had work to do back at our homebase – one always has work to do. But I knew I could make a few phone calls and re-arrange that. We had a very brisk beat out of Whangaparapara, one which washed any shore dust off Taleisin’s side decks. Once clear, we reached off, set the big jib, shook the reef out of the mainsail and began a sleigh ride north and east.
I especially like night watches such as we had on this short passage. Clear skies, just enough of a sea to give a lift and a slight shove as Taleisin surged forward at seven knots, dry decks, cool enough to require a light sweater and long pants. Best of all, the navigation lights marking the various headlands, combined with lights to mark the ends of the offshore islands meant I knew almost exactly where I was just by a quick glance at a chart.
Though we have had a home base in New Zealand for almost 27 years, we never really explored this country. Instead, we had, in the past, headed off across oceans saying, "Let’s save exploring our adopted homeland until we are older." So the only anchorages and coastlines we knew well lay within the 30 mile stretch between our island home and Auckland City, plus Opua in the bay of islands where we cleared in after several offshore voyages. As we headed north, I enjoyed looking at all of the bays and anchorages we could explore over the next years. But with the wonderful wind we had, neither of us wanted to stop sailing. I think that, if the wind had not begun to die off just after we passed the Piercy Island, at the entrance to the Bay of Islands, we might have kept on sailing right out into the Tasman Sea. But, like any normal cook, I remembered the empty ice chest, and the Tall Ships Race scheduled to take place that week. If we joined in we were sure to meet up with sailing friends from other parts of the country.
The Tall Ships Race is a Bay of Islands Institution. Every year at least 70 or 80 sailing vessels from 150 foot training vessels to 25-foot local cruisers, rendezvous at the picturesque Russell Sailing Club for morning tea and a race meeting. Then follows a lovely day of racing in the protected waters of bay. Visiting cruisers are encouraged to join in the race and there are special prizes and gifts for overseas vessels. But the big attraction, one that draws several hundred people is the party afterwards with two bands and a huge hungi (traditional Maori feast) which is cooked in an underground oven on coals created by burning over 6 cords of wood. This year, being one of the driest in northland history, there was doubt the hungi could be held. That is until, with usual Kiwi generosity, the local firefighters volunteered to work at no charge. So as the local Iwi (Maori tribe) set to work digging the pit, piling on the wood and stoking the fires, a shiny yellow fire truck stood at the ready, with an extra water tanker alongside just in case.
Just as we expected, from the minute we sailed into the Bay, we began meeting friends from far-flung places, Ireland, Samoa, Kiritibati, England, USA and of voyaging friends who had settled in this area. A few of the cruisers who had just sailed through the Pacific this season came by to introduce themselves. Soon we found ourselves with dates, but the kind that make cruising fun. First there was a rendezvous in a bay five miles from Russell to join seven other couples who are members of the Ocean Cruising Club, a group of international and very experienced ocean voyagers, then a dinner invite in another bay six miles further out for dinner with sailing friends we’d first met in French Polynesia almost 26 years ago and so it went for two weeks.
The Bay of Islands offers lovely sailing, lots of places to anchor that you can choose to join the crowds or sail off to be by yourself. There are several settlements where you can easily anchor and row ashore to find affordable tasty meals at cafes with outdoor seating and views across some of the prettiest waters in the world. But what always makes us a bit sad is, very few of the 150 or so voyagers who sail down to New Zealand seem to get out and explore at all. Instead, the work berths and moorings in Opua are filled with folks who arrived feeling tired of sailing and with long lists of broken gear which needs to be replaced or repaired.
Though many of them buy or rent an old car and take an inland tour of the country between work periods, they rarely leave the mooring to discover what we think is the best kind of sailing, gunkholing along an interesting coastline, joining the locals for summer sailing festivities that will lead to lifelong friendships.
Those who do enjoy exploring the coast of New Zealand seem to have a few things in common:
- They have either kept their boats relatively simple and/or had done maintenance along the way so they arrived with a relatively short work list
- They did not try to visit every possible island in the Pacific. Instead they chose a few special places to explore well so they could slow down and take time off when they wanted. This meant they did not feel burned out on sailing by being underway too much of the time.
- They didn’t try to meet up with overseas visitors in the islands, but instead suggested they come to New Zealand where it is easy to arrange rendezvous.
A special treat for us happened in the final anchorage we visited before heading south. We’d tucked in behind the headland at Parakura Bay because a strong northwesterly wind, backing to northeasterly was forecast. A voice called out as we were down below having a siesta. I recognized that voice even though it was almost 20 years since we’d last said farewell to John Gander near Durville Island in the Marlborough Sounds on the northern edge of New Zealand’s southern island. John had grown up in the sounds and knew the area well. When we sailed through there on our way to Sydney Australia, he and his wife Bev had taken a month off and escorted us with their 60 foot Schooner Windsong and guided us to several of the most interesting outlying spots in that windy rugged stretch of coastline.
We’d heard how John and Bev, who spent much of their lives life running diving charters and moving their boat north for the winter months, south for the summer, grew tired of the routine. They also decided they wanted a smaller boat. Solution, they bought a small home in the Bay of Islands and built two identical 34-foot double-ended cutters. Took them four years total – handsome wooden vessels – outfitted identically right down to dishes, spices, and clothing. Now they drive between the boats no packing or luggage required. The southern one is maintained by their son who uses it when they are away; the northern one is maintained by Bev and John to immaculate standards. Talk about energy – forgot to mention, they started building the two boats when John was well over 60 and Bev maintains a beautiful garden in both places too. Grand to catch up with folks like these, but we could never keep up with them!!!
Here’s to sailing, a fine way to touch base with old friends!
Lin and Larry