After the decision was taken to head south to New Zealand for the southern hemisphere’s cyclone season, we knew getting there and back was going to be a challenge, given the treacherous stretch of ocean that we had to cross. It’s a stretch of ocean where yachts have been lost and, indeed, lives. We had always known that this part of the globe was notorious for the bad weather, where yachts have to pick their way through the unfavourable weather systems that constantly migrate across the south-western Pacific Ocean. On hindsight, it’s fair to say, we should have gone north, but our rationale to head south to New Zealand instead, considered the fact that this is a very popular hurricane destination, with numerous yachts doing the circuit annually and, as long as we were prepared, treating it just like every other passage we have undertaken, we would prevail. We already had an idea of what the specifics of the passage would be like, given the challenges we had already experienced on the passage from Samoa to Tonga, since the direction we would be heading in was similar. The phrase:”running the gauntlet” would prove to be a fair description of our passages to and from New Zealand.
So, having done all our research thoroughly and feeling prepared, we left Fiji. It was, of course, no surprise then, when transiting Navula Passage on 24th October 2016, that we encounter high winds and seas. With average boat speeds of 7.5-8.5 Kts we hoped the winds would last for as long as possible before we hit the "doughnut hole" in the middle of the high pressure system that was positioned between Fiji and New Zealand. Fortunately they did, and, although the weather settled down a few days later, we were still able to enjoy average boat speeds of 8 Kts in the decent winds supplied by Mother Nature.
Unfortunately, however, at the start of the passage, we’d made the decision to follow some ill-advice to head west towards 30ºS 173ºE. On our third day out we realised this was a bad strategy, given that the westerly winds previously forecasted were now expected to be southerly, becoming easterly the closer we got to New Zealand. This resulted in us having to make a major course correction and head due south in order to regain our easterly component, which basically cost us at least 100NM, not to mention, precious time. That also meant that we were now close-hauling. Fortunately the seas were relatively flat with only a large rolling south-easterly swell which made this, normally unpleasant point of sail, a little easier. We did, however, know that these conditions would not last and we weren’t disappointed. In the blink of an eye, the wind direction changed from easterly to south-easterly and the sea developed a short, steep chop, causing us to slam and bounce around. After reefing further and altering course again, we were no longer able to head south, but more south, south-west, which was not ideal. With roughly 220NM to go, we were looking forward to" land ahoy" having altered course again to accommodate the strong counter current we started to experience every night.
Prior to this passage we had also taken the decision to sail Paw Paw more aggressively in order to keep our speed up and get to Opua ahead of a wave of unpleasant south-westerly gales. We knew, of course, that this strategy would have some consequences. In particular, we would have to make sail changes immediately to get the best out of the conditions as they fluctuated and we would motor-sail or motor as needed. This was different to previous passages in that we normally postponed sail changes to coincide with watch changes and we barely used the motors unless we started to “bob”.
While the strategy was successful, it meant making numerous sail changes throughout the day and night and switching the motors on and off like light bulbs as conditions warranted, leaving us both suffering from a degree of sleep deprivation, but more so for Elaine apparently. It was on this passage that we had another first on Paw Paw. Roy woke Elaine for the last of the night watches, but while making an early morning cup of tea for us, he wondered why she was taking so long to come up to the saloon. On further investigations he found her fast asleep; after being woken up initially she had simply turned over and gone right back to sleep. Needless to say she was absolutely mortified when Roy had to wake her a second time! While we took every opportunity to catch up on sleep, eat well and stay warm as the temperatures dropped with each degree that we sailed south, this passage had clearly taken its toll.
New Zealand. A country Roy has always wanted to visit, but one Elaine had no real desire to see; For no particular reason, other than the fact that her first impressions of New Zealanders was that of a very unsavoury character whom she had to work for in London and there appeared to be far more interesting places on earth to see, but for Roy, it was a place of intrigue.
It was also a country that did not appear anywhere on our circumnavigation itinerary, but fate changed that when we decided to slow down and leave the World ARC in Tahiti. That meant, as for every sailor in the South Pacific, we had to make a choice of where we would spend the hurricane season, or as it’s known in the southern hemisphere, the cyclone season. Two choices existed; head north to the islands closer to the equator, like Micronesia and the Marshall Islands or head south to New Zealand, along with the vast majority of other sailors. The latter it was!
It would be remiss not to acknowledge that Elaine’s impressions of New Zealand have possibly been tainted by her preconceived feelings, as well as her in-depth exposure to the New Zealand healthcare services, but as the author of this article, she will attempt to provide an unbiased opinion by documenting our experiences, which for every lowlight, there was definitely a highlight.
After leaving Fiji on 24th October 2016 and ”running the gauntlet” to cross the South West Pacific Ocean, we arrived safely in Opua, New Zealand on 31st October 2016. We were in good company for this passage with Talulah Ruby III (Andy and Paul), whom we first met in Bonaire in 2014, Blue Summit (Kate and Steve), whom we met on the World ARC and Whistler (Margy and Monty) whom we had met in Fiji, amongst a number of other yachts whom we had not yet had the pleasure of meeting in person.
Besides the huge and very convenient customs wharf that we tied up to and the very professional officialdom process we encountered the following day, it was the weather we experienced on arrival that became a lasting impression of New Zealand for us. While we looked forward to a good night's sleep, the temperatures had plummeted, which certainly forced us to reconsider our sleeping arrangements, if we were to survive the summer in New Zealand. Yes, you read correctly, the summer! So, another first; we hauled out our spare blankets and ran the central heating. After 15 years in Arizona and 3 years in the tropics, the very cold weather was definitely an unexpected shock! It didn’t help matters that the next day we woke to a bitterly cold morning, with a thick mist hanging over the water. It was definitely time to unpack all our winter woollies, never mind the blankets.
On our first evening we headed ashore to the Opua Cruising Club for drinks and dinner, where we were pleasantly surprised to find Blue Summit. In the warmth of a log fire, we exchanged passage stories, reminisced on a wonderful sailing season and looked forward to discovering our new home for the next 6 months.
The following day was spent getting ourselves settled in. That included getting to the nearest town, Paihia, in order to get to a bank and pick up some groceries, getting access to all the marina facilities, obtaining membership to the Opua Cruising Club and getting some high priority issues resolved like our depth sensor and wind generator bracket.