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Sailing Round New Zealand


‘Total Confusion?’ Not a bad name for a boat, but not especially helpful as my only directions to find a boat in a country where there are millions. I was standing in Auckland airport having arrived from Christchurch overloaded with luggage, sweaty hot and bemused. I had been called out of the blue to help deliver a yacht from Auckland to Picton on the south island of New Zealand. The call up had come as a surprise however I decided I would be a fool to turn down the opportunity to cruise the Roaring Forties so I duly jacked in my high powered labourers job and abruptly headed for Auckland.

It was only upon arrival that I realised I had absolutely no idea where I was meant to go or what the boat was called. I sent a hurried text message to my employer and received the laconic reply: ‘Total Confusion.’ This transpired to be the name of the vessel that was my ticket to Picton. I headed down to the said vessel with a degree of trepidation.

It was March, which is early autumn in New Zealand yet it was still very hot and muggy In Auckland. I lugged my Dunnage aboard Total Confusion with much sweating and cursing. I was greeted by the skipper Paul who was in his mid thirties, brown as a berry and wrinkled as a prune. His thinning hair was tied back in dreadlocks. I looked upon him, pondering on how refreshingly different he was from the more straight laced delivery skippers I had encountered back in England. My other shipmate was the proud new owner of Total Confusion who was pleasingly named Bruce.

Total Confusion was a 36ft sloop very solidly built however she had clearly spent the last few years gently decaying. We therefore spent several days in Auckland repairing and preparing the boat before heading out into the Hauraki Gulf and into the unknown. We motored down Waitemata harbour as dusk fell over Auckland, City of Sails. Ahead of us the Sky Tower loomed, an unmistakeable spike dominating the skyline. As we headed out an evening race was heading in, yachts drifting gently in the fickle breezes Auckland must be a great playground for sailors. We headed North toward Cape Colville on the tip of the Cororomandel peninsula as darkness closed around us and motored on through the calm night. The engine was dreadfully noisy and vibrated so much it made your teeth rattle.

The first settlers of New Zealand were the Maori. They filtered down from the South Seas in their Waka (canoes) about 800 years ago. When after the long journey New Zealand was sighted it was distinguished by a mass of cloud. Thus to the Maori New Zealand is Aotearoa; Land of the long white cloud. I was more fortunate,  I scarcely encountered a cloud on the whole voyage. There is a remarkable quality to the light in New Zealand, it almost feels as if someone has turned up the brightness, perhaps it is due to the unpolluted air, which certainly has a wonderful freshness to it.

The first morning found us off the Coromandel Peninsula. Magnificent Red cliffs and jagged red islands characterise the Coromandel Coast. On board there are other distractions. Bruce decides to cook breakfast and after a long absence presents me with a plate of raw runny egg and gritty charred bacon. If you were ever going to get seasick it would be now and Bruce duly turns an alarming grey/green colour and disappears to the heads for an extended period of time.

The following morning we are poised to cross the great bight that is the Bay of Plenty. At this point the engine starts playing up, it had never sounded healthy and now it coughed and finally died. Fortunately as we lay plowtering about in the uneven swell a fine breeze picked up and we were able to make progress under sail alone. The peace after hours of rattling was immensely satisfying. Equally satisfying was the scenery as we neared the East Cape. The scenery here was truly magnificent; great verdant mountains of the Raukumara Range plunge steeply to meet the sea shimmering and wild on this empty coastline. I can only compare it to Polynesia.

What amazed me most was how empty this East Coast was. We’ve all heard the statistics about New Zealand: Six sheep to every man or whatever it is, but until you have sailed past literally miles of coastline and seen nothing, no sign of life at all, only then do you get some idea of the great space and solitude afforded to Kiwis. It was a privilege to sail a coast so untouched, knowing that when Captain Cook sailed this coast he saw exactly what I saw now. Bruce told me that this East coast area has one of the largest Maori tribe or Iwi in New Zealand, the Ngati Porou. He also told me it was here that you found the purest Maori and also a great number of red haired Maoris.

By evening we rounded the East Cape in exhilarating conditions I succeeded in coaxing eight knots out of the usually truculent Total Confusion and fortunately as we slid under the lee of the land and lost the breeze Paul got the motor started. The sunset that evening was magnificent: as the sun dipped behind Mount Hikurangi, it sent great motes of sunlight down the surrounding valleys. As the Easternmost point of New Zealand Hikurangi Was the first mainland site to receive the suns rays on the dawn of the new millennium Hikurangi is Considered Tapu or sacred to the Maori as in Maori lore it is where the Great Ancestor’s canoe came to rest after he had fished up the North Island from the sea and herein lies an interesting question: In Maori folklore the North Island is a fish and if you look at a map it is shaped like a fish however the Maori had no maps. How did they know?

Night watches were particularly memorable on this voyage the total absence of light pollution and the crisp clearness of the air made the stars an absolute marvel to behold. I have never seen the stars in such breathtaking clarity before. The Southern Cross shining out was also a constant reminder that I really was half a world away from home.

The next morning found us closing on the port of Gisborne, an uncomplicated little fishing port situated in the picturesquely named Poverty Bay. We pulled up at the rather ramshackle fuel berth and enquired as to the whereabouts of the marina office. We were met with howls of derision and a lot of chaff about being cappucino quaffing Auckland softies ‘Jesus mate! You’ll be asking where the showers are next.’ A friendly face leered down upon me. It had been our next question. While Bruce re-stocked I took the opportunity to explore the town. Gisborne was a town in a dream that day.  Full of all sorts of people: Wild looking barefooted hippies, huge Maoris. There seemed to be musicians playing on every street corner. In the harbour a large ketch was manouvering under power, she looked just as a South Sea ketch should. Her crew looked suitably villainous too, the kind who should meet their end as Long Pig, after a career spent dynamiting fish and pearling in forbidden atolls.

At midday we bade farewell to Gisborne and headed south towards Young Nicks Head named by Captain Cook after the surgeon’s assistant on the Endeavour. This was the first piece of New Zealand Cook or rather Young Nick sighted. We were now entering the Roaring Forties, meaning we had slipped below 40 degrees latitude south. The Roaring forties have always had a special meaning to all sailors. The Southern ocean is famed for its wildness, the domain of the lonely Albatross and the lordly clipper ships of the 19th century, which raced home through the Roaring Forties with the seasons wool clip. These days only Ellen MacArthur enters these waters as far as I can tell. I was thrilled albeit a little tentative to be entering these waters and as it turned out we had sailed into a conundrum. The radio was forecasting gale force 8 that night which was a worry and to compound this our engine had died again. We were abreast the aptly named Cape Turnagain and had to decide whether to turn back to Napier in the end though we just decided to sit it out.

Waiting for the gale was tense. In a way I was excited to be getting a bit of a blow, as the trip had been so relaxing up until now but at the same time there was the worry that we would get more than we bargained for. None of us were totally convinced about the seaworthiness of Total Confusion. As the day progressed the weather worsened. Fierce squalls would race up out of nowhere, knock us about and then die to nothing. With the wind came the Albatross, lords of the Southern Ocean. Skimming low over the waves to catch any updraughts. They rarely flapped their huge wings. I saw at least five during the gale. Sailors used to believe that the Albatross was the spirit of a drowned sailor and thus it was considered tremendously bad luck to kill one. Total Confusion rode out the gale admirably and by morning the gale had abated. Dawn also revealed an unholy mess down below and also a split headsail, we hurriedly patched it, the sun came out and all was well with the world.

By mid afternoon we were closing with Cape Palliser, the southern tip of the North Island. Again the scenery was utterly magnificent. Massive lush green mountains plunging steeply into the sea. Far off to the south you could see the mighty snow capped ranges of the Southern Alps. Pods of dolphins shoot past the boat, playing in the wake before racing out ahead of us. We loll on deck soaking up the sun, occasionally tending to our fishing lines. Its difficult not to feel like a character from Jack London’s’ South Sea Tales or Melvilles’ Ty-Pee and impossible to believe that less than 100 kilometres away in downtown Wellington people jostle in rush hour traffic. Here we are a century out of time. We haven’t seen a boat since Gisborne. The wildness and isolation of this coast is as much a deterrent as it is alluring. Sometimes it pays to stray from the beaten path.

As evening falls a stiff breeze sets in to hurry us across the Cook Strait. We are nearly home and as the westering sun sets the sea aglitter and makes shapes out of the shadows on the hills. It is impossible not to feel regret that the voyage is nearly at an end.

In the early morning we arrived off the Tory Channel, a narrow bottleneck of an entrance into the Marlborough Sounds. I smell wood smoke and pines. There is a completely different feel to this island. Unlike the North Island, which was largely shaped by volcanic activity the South island was moulded by glacial processes and the scenery is therefore markedly different, perhaps more like alpine Europe in some respects. Even the climate is different, less humid and distinctly cooler. Inside the Marlborough Sounds is a sailors’ paradise: a vast maze of sheltered inlets and sounds flanked by low pine clad hills dropping steeply to the sea. The only comparison I can make is with the fiords of Norway.

We arrive in Picton just before midday exhausted but elated. The trip has taken us the best part of five days, not bad going considering the engine problems. Picton is a quiet town situated at the head of the Marlborough Sounds. Typical of New Zealand, where the mundane nestles amongst the magnificent. Theroux once sneeringly described New Zealand as ‘Bexhill upon Pacific’ in reference to the colonial feel of many communities. I can see his point, yet  is a  harsh assessment. To me New Zealand is all about the magnificent scenery and the incredible peace and solitude that goes with it. To cruise one of the few unspoilt coastlines left in the world was a privilege, to know there was a cosy town selling fish and chips and a nice hot cup of tea was just around the corner was simply an added bonus.

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