North Minerva was truly a high spot: it’s hard to describe – or even to appreciate – the sensation of being anchored ‘in the middle of nowhere’. There are no sand cays, no palm trees, nothing but reef and surf. Going ashore at low water, we put the dinghy anchor behind a lump of coral and climbed up onto the reef, which had a miniature cataract running off its whole length. We wandered about, examining sea slugs and clams with gorgeously coloured mantles; looking at a pile of ballast(?) from a wreck; watching schools of turquoise parrotfish, formation swimming in the shallows. Then suddenly we realised that we were in calf-deep water and the waves, breaking on the ocean side of the reef, were finding their way right across. We waded back to the dinghy, whose anchor was now awash.
We’d intended to go looking for crayfish in the evening, but the moon was nearly full (which would make them very nervous) and Islay announced that they were leaving. We’d had a marvellous stop, the wind was fair and fresh: maybe it was time to leave? No sooner said than done. The dinghies were stowed on deck, the ship tidied up below and at 1625 on 2 November, we started extracting our anchor from the coral. That we could do so under sail shows how relatively clear that anchorage is. An hour and a half later, we had cleared the pass and were heading to pass South Minerva. Islay stayed in sight until 0800 the following morning, when increasing wind and occasional squalls hid her. After that, we saw one ship and one yacht’s masthead light, until we were quite close to New Zealand, when we were buzzed by an NZAF Orion, instructing us to e-mail the authorities that we were about to arrive! They seemed singularly unimpressed when we told them that the only radio we had was VHF. I’m not at all sure why it was that they couldn’t report our imminent arrival.
The passage from the Tropics to New Zealand is notorious – ‘ the worst weather you will ever encounter’, etc. Cruisers start worrying about it from the time they leave the Societies and agonise over the correct procedure. The favoured approach is to monitor the SSB and/or pay for weather information. Then you wait for the ‘Weather Window’, which seems to mean leaving when there is a large high-pressure system between Tonga and New Zealand and motoring like the demon for 600 miles. When the routeing charts only show a 2% incidence of gales, one really has to wonder what all the fuss is about. The other approach is to leave when you’re ready and take the weather as it comes, but this is considered very irresponsible.
At least until the half way point, we were sure we’d made the correct decision. We made rapid progress in fresh E winds for 2½ days and had made 412 miles by noon on the 5th. Then the wind started to take off and we anticipated running into the middle of the high, which had been stationary for several days before we left Minerva. In fact we were lucky and were never becalmed, although we had a couple of 90-mile days. Then the wind came back and it started getting cooler; we saw our first albatross and couldn’t believe our luck that the wind continued to be fair.
Trevor was trying to pick up New Zealand radio stations and on the 7th heard warning of gales around the Cook Strait, which we hoped would have gone by the time we got to New Zealand. A couple of days later, we could pick up the odd VHF broadcast and these gave us some food for thought: the low seemed to have stalled and there were storm warnings out for North Island, due to coincide with our arrival. Iron Bark is a sturdy little ship and can take storms in her stride, but we don’t go looking for them. On the other hand, if we pressed on there was at least an even chance of arriving before the wind went SW. We decided to continue: the worst that was likely to happen was that we’d have to turn round and run back N. All through the day and night of 8 November, we pushed on in increasing wind and heavy showers. The forecasts were now clear and it was going to be touch and go. We were over canvassed, but the gear held and Iron Bark crashed dauntlessly on. At dawn the land was in sight, frequently hidden behind violent rainsqualls, while the wind was a steady F7, rising to gale force in the gusts. As we approached the Bay of Islands, it increased further, gusting F9, but by 0630, we were between the headlands and after another couple of miles, were confident that whatever the wind decided to do, we’d be able to find shelter. At 0930, we secured to the quarantine dock, 7½ days from North Minerva.
Later that day, the Bay of Islands actuals reported gusts of 79 knots and sustained winds of 49. Maybe we should have waited for a ‘weather window’!