We’re in New Zealand!

In fact, we arrived six days ago, and it’s finally sinking in. I can even say/write it without an exclamation point: We’re in New Zealand. See how calm I am? But then the delight and sheer relief of having made it overtake me again. We’re in New Zealand! We did it! And we didn’t die or break the boat, and though it’s bloody freezing here, this is an omigosh fabulous place!

It wasn’t easy getting here. The 1,100-mile passage from Fiji to the north tip of NZ has a deservedly ominous reputation among sailors, the primary villain being the frequent southwest gales. They sweep across these latitudes of the Pacific every 4-5 days and can bring howling winds of 40-50 knots and towering seas. As far back as Panama, the mere mention that we were aiming for NZ elicited horror stories from other sailors. When we admitted it would take Corroboree 9-11 days to reach NZ, the stories turned to blunt predictions: “You’re going to get hit.”

Well, that doesn’t do a lot for your confidence. Every time we thought of the coming voyage, it was with a knot in our stomach. That knot grew bigger as the time approached. Yet with the right weather window, you can make the journey in less life-threatening conditions. Miraculously, thanks to a high pressure system that stalled west of NZ, we got just the opening we needed: a long spell of winds from the east to southeast. We left Fiji on 17 October with a dozen other boats, all of us having obsessively monitored and shared weather information from numerous sources for a week before that.

Our voyage then consisted of four days of strong wind, rain and rough seas, two days of decent sailing in more moderate conditions, two days of motorsailing in light to no wind, and a last overnight sprint in a northwest breeze. We arrived in Opua in the stunning Bay of Islands on 26 October. Despite my famous last words in the video below that the wind would soon ease up–Ha! It promptly increased–overall, we estimate the wind never got above 30 knots.

NZ Day 1

Here are the highs and lows of the journey:

It was wet. In the cockpit, Eric and I repeatedly got slapped by waves and spray. Between the rain and the waves flooding over the bow, the water also forced itself through hatches, portholes, a leaky cleat and down the mast. It coated the inside of the boat, including the stove, with a salt crust. The bedding and  seat cushions likewise got damp. We mopped up continuously with towels, but with no sun to dry out the towels it was a somewhat futile process.

It got cold. Halfway between Fiji and NZ we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, and the temperature gradually dropped. While not uncomfortable during the day, the 3-hour night watches were chilly. We ended up wearing our foul weather gear for the entire passage, the first half for protection from the water, the second half for warmth.

I got seasick—damn!—for only about the fourth time on our entire voyage. It was the worst by far and lasted 24 hours. It felt as if my stomach was being pulled inside out and ripped up my throat. When it finally passed, I reached for my go-to recovery food: instant mashed potatoes. Hot, filling and easy to digest.

Things broke. Our mainsail ripped, the sail track separated from the mast, the jib boom broke in two. We compensated for the mainsail issues by reefing, which we had to do anyway in the wind, and the jib boom we can sail without. Other small damages we repaired en route.

The weather window held. Though you shouldn’t trust any weather forecast for more than three days out, this one remained blessedly accurate for our nine full days at sea. Also, using our satellite phone, we obtained daily reports of the weather 100 miles ahead so we’d know what to expect. As long as the wind didn’t shift to the west or southwest, we were all right.

The moon was full. Though the sky was mostly overcast, that wonderful moon, even when hidden behind a blanket of clouds, provided enough light to see the horizon around us. You would be surprised what a simple but significant difference that makes.  

We saw dolphins. They appeared the last two mornings before we reached NZ, small creatures, about six in number each time, and they didn’t stay long to play. But we hadn’t seen any dolphins at all since our leg from Panama to the Marquesas in April, and there is nothing like the appearance of dolphins to lift your spirits.

We spotted an albatross, most likely a royal albatross. It was sitting on the water about two hundred miles from NZ, and as we approached, the huge bird made an ungainly takeoff. Then, apparently deciding that flapping away took too much effort, it resettled on the sea and gazed complacently at us as we passed. On the entire 1,100-mile voyage, once out of sight of land and scanning in every direction, I counted a grand total of 15 birds over 9 days. That’s how empty the ocean can be.

NZ Day 8

Entering NZ’s Bay of Islands on the last morning was like waking up in heaven. Rocky shores, green forests, pure blue sea and sky, and hundreds of boats of every size and description dotted around beautiful anchorages—NZ is a sailor’s paradise. We berthed at Bay of Islands Marina in Opua, a haven for some 400+ yachts, and immediately started meeting up with our fellow travelers from Fiji. Most of them being bigger and faster than we are, they had arrived a day or two ahead of us. All of them experienced the same conditions we did. Over and over again we heard, “It was wet!”

Now, six days later and in a flurry of activity, we have dried out the boat, done laundry, and hitchhiked twice into the nearest town, Paihia, for grocery shopping. We’ve met with friends for drinks at the Opua Cruising Club and attended a wonderful wine-tasting birthday party for another cruising friend at a boutique winery in the countryside. Eric is scoping out chandleries and talking to sailmakers about a new set of sails. I took a few hours off one morning to go birding around the marina and have added shining cuckoos, a NZ kingfisher and an Australian harrier, among others, to my life list.

View from the marina

Winery birthday party

It’s cold here—a blue penguin has been seen at the marina dinghy dock—and it rains on and off at the drop of a hat. Strong southwest winds have arisen and will prevail for the next two weeks; we made it in just in time to avoid getting hit. We’ll stay in Opua through the weekend to explore the local area, including historic Russell, NZ’s first capital, a short ferry ride across the bay. Then one more short sail down the coast to Whangarei where we will haul out Corroboree for some extensive work.

The winds during our voyage (l.) vs. the winds around NZ now (r.) Stay away from the red stuff!

Reaching NZ has been a huge goal since we bought Corroboree in 2014. For one thing, she was built here, in Auckland, in 1987-88, so there is something special in being able to return her to the land of her birth. For another, neither Eric nor I have been to NZ or Australia before, and even without a boat, visiting these countries was at the top of our travel list.

Most of all, it represents a conquest of our own fears and doubts. Can we do it? we asked ourselves as we set sail from Fiji. Answer: I guess we’re about to find out. Now here we are—Can I say it one last time? We’re in New Zealand!—and it feels great. Yet that’s not to say we won’t feel scared or anxious about future passages. Though our confidence is definitely up, we’re already hearing that the Indian Ocean can be treacherous and the winds at Capetown, South Africa, are notorious for whipping boats around.

We’ll cross those waves when we come to them. Meanwhile, Corroboree will be in NZ until spring 2019 to wait out the cyclone season. We plan to buy a car, tour the North and South Islands, and love every minute of it. Plus, the kids are coming for Christmas.

How can it get better than that?