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In Greenland

Iron Bark

Iron Bark
Under full sail


At Russell Boating Club's Tall Ships Regatta

Blue Water Medal

Blue Water Medal
Blue Water Medal

Books By Annie Hill

  • Brazil and Beyond
  • Voyaging on a Small Income

13 November, 2010

A change of pace

The moment Iron Bark sailed between the headlands which guard the entrance to New Zealand's Bay of Islands, I felt I'd come home. My mother was born on South Island, and I had always wanted to visit the country of her birth. Finally it had happened.

Over the next year, I waited for the rose-tinted spectacles to fall off, but when we sailed for Australia, I felt a harder wrench than usual as I said good-bye to my friends. I loved Oz, but looked forward impatiently to turning Iron Bark's bows back towards New Zealand.

For 35 years, my life has been dominated by voyaging. The only time I've stopped anywhere for more than a few months has been to build a boat.  Occasionally we stay somewhere to carry out a refit, but once all is ready for sea, we raise anchor and head out. It's all been rather wonderful, but recently, I've been hankering for a place I can call home. I've become tired of saying good-bye to people I love, knowing I might never see them again. My parents are long dead. There seems nothing for me in England, my remaining family so used to my prolonged absences that I'm no longer important in their lives. And New Zealand reaches out to me: I love its scenery, its climate and its people. My mother's accident of birth gives me the right to live here; my best friend swallowed the anchor and bought a house in Nelson. Maybe I can create a 'family' here so that when I sail away, Nelson will be the home I return to; someone will welcome me back; I'll belong.

Trevor, not surprisingly, doesn't share my feelings. After years spent building Iron Bark, he wants to enjoy her. I sailed with him to Australia and then we successfully circumnavigated South Island, but all the time I knew it was time to stop and put down some roots. At last I had to tell him that for the moment, anyway, I need to stop voyaging.  It's just as necessary for him to carry on, so we agreed that I should buy myself a little boat to live on – even if I could afford it, I couldn't envisage living in a house – and fly out to join him for a few weeks every year. Financially it is a foolish decision and the idea of flying around the world is unappealing, but sometimes you just have to follow your instincts.

My ideal boat is about 28ft, cold-moulded wood and junk-rigged, but with 8m (26ft), I could immediately get a berth and 'liveaboard' status in Nelson Marina – both necessities in my new way of life. Small, cold-moulded boats are easy to find in NZ; junk rig nearly an impossibility. As well, the New Zealand dollar has shot up in value, and from being worth 32p in 2007, is now worth 45p, so my savings are worth considerably less. But eventually I found an 8m yacht that fulfilled many of my desiderata. Admittedly she is fibreglass, not my favourite material, a bit run down and poorly maintained.

On the other  hand, she has the most attractive interior, with lots of mahogany, a good – indeed an excellent – galley and a comfortable saloon. 
Buying her was a fraught affair, her owner intransigent and refusing to see that things had deteriorated in the decade he'd owned the boat. The brokers suggested scrapping the deal and looking again, but it would be difficult to find anything more suitable for the money and before Trevor's planned departure in November. She was so close to what I wanted that it seemed worth paying over the odds for her.
 Joshua, as she is named, is a Raven 26, designed by Owen Woolley. Many were built in the late 70s with plywood decks; Joshua is a Mk II version, built in the 80s, with a foam-sandwich deck. I say deck rather than coachroof, because Joshua, like most of the boats I've owned, has a full-width cabin, which is undoubtedly part of her appeal. The name is unfortunate, conjuring up heroes such as Slocum and Moitessier, and it's not much of an improvement to know that she's named for the previous owner's pet Pug. Her original name, Small Change doesn't have quite the right overtones, either, so I decided to leave it until she suggests a name to me.

With my usual impeccable timing, I finalised the deal in early winter. Joshua occupied the brokers' display berth and, not surprisingly, they wanted it back. I should have to sail the 90 miles from Picton to Nelson – by way of the Cook Strait – with the shortest day only three weeks away.

Trevor would have been only too happy to accompany me, but I needed to take responsibility for my boat from the start and not rely on anyone else. Besides, I rather liked the idea of having a boat that was entirely mine, to do with as I wished. Master - or is it Mistress - under God and all that. However, I gratefully accepted Trevor's offer to drive me over and at the end of May, we hired a car, loaded it with bits of gear that were conspicuously absent from Joshua's inventory and drove across to Picton on Queen Charlotte Sound and to Waikawa Marina, a couple of miles to seaward of the town.

We emptied the car and I stowed things below. Trevor helped enormously: loosening an almost-seized gate valve (I made a mental note to replace them all with seacocks asap), tightening the stern gland, and checking the batteries. He bought me a shifting spanner for my vestigial tool kit and drove me to fill up the gas bottle. I could tell he didn't want to leave me, but he had to get home and I needed to be alone to think things through. Finally, he got into the car, I waved him off and went back on my boat, which seemed cold and scruffy and unwelcoming. I had a bad dose of Buyer's Remorse and left to have a hot shower.

Back on board, Remorse gnawed at me again, so I lit the cooker – only one burner seemed to work – and boiled a kettle, debating for all of ten seconds before taking the whisky bottle from the grog locker and pouring myself a large tot, topping it up with hot water. By the time I'd drunk it and made myself a hot meal, things looked a lot better.

After I'd eaten, I got out the New Zealand Cruising Guide (Central Area) and started to plan my passage. The first obstacle was rounding Cape Jackson – the local Cape Horn . Then I had to navigate French Pass. I read about these with some misgivings:

"Cape Jackson... naturally exposed to all winds... quite a hurdle to boat users... conditions can be most uncomfortable and dangerous... the tide flow is often considerably stronger... five knots... passage often has tide rips and overfalls... strong tidal steams... up to four knots... should be avoided in bad weather conditions."

Of French Pass, I read: "it is dangerous to attempt to travel against the stream unless the boat is easily capable of at least nine knots under power... even if travelling with the stream there can be problems controlling a boat, because of the eddies... the bow of the vessel can swing into the counter current and the boat be slewed in to the shore... not as dangerous as those formed by the flood tide... start engines before entering the pass in order to maintain steerage way."

Then I read about the Beef Barrels: "notorious for having caused many wrecks... frequently difficult to see... surrounded by other rocks, some awash at LW... extremely dangerous and should be given a wide berth."

Did I want to do this? Briskly reminding myself that Pilots always sound daunting; that I learnt to sail in Morecambe Bay with 7 knot tides and no engine; that I had successfully navigated in many places that were poorly charted and had no information... I found I was still daunted at the thought of this single-handed passage. I poured another hot toddy and carefully worked out the tides for the next few days and considered my options. I wanted to avoid night sailing and the short days made it important for me to get my timing right. With a rough plan sketched out, I turned in, snuggling into my down sleeping bag and pleased to find my bunk is really comfortable.

Before I left, I needed kerosene for the light and a winch handle, but it being a Saturday, the chandlers opened late. While I was filling up the water containers (Joshua's tank was not usable), the broker came to chat. I was not really too reassured when he gave me a plethora of useful tips for getting round Cape Jackson with boat and life intact.

The forecast was dreadful, but if I didn't leave now I never would and I could pick up a secure mooring further up the Sound. I squared everything away and with my heart in my mouth, started the recently-overhauled engine. The single-cylinder Bukh seemed to find it as cold as I did, but eventually coughed into life and settled down to a reassuring thump. I had to execute a three-point turn to get out and nearly got myself into trouble at that first manoeuvre: with so many things to think about I had temporarily forgotten that the gear lever goes down for astern and up for forward, not what I'd expect. But the kick of the prop wash against the rudder was a clear reminder and I quickly found astern. Joshua turned on her heel and we chugged away from all the expensive boats towards the Sound. As we cleared the breakwaters that protect the marina, I felt my heart lift.

Being the weekend, there were other boats about to give me moral support. It was heavily overcast, but the odd shaft of sun momentarily found its way through, causing a brief sparkle on the water before disappearing once more. I set the jib to a SE F3 and headed NE up the Sound. Joshua has electric self-steering – something I'd never used before – which did a fine job of holding the tiller for me when I wanted to do something else. The wind was fluky and I felt that there was enough going on without my setting the mainsail. I'm sure that there aren't that many ferries going to and from Picton from Wellington, but they seemed to come past every few minutes.

Occasionally the wind died and I'd start the engine. The forecast wasn't improving and while we were sheltered from whatever was going on outside, I didn't have the local knowledge to know if this was likely to change.

By mid-morning, Tory Channel was abeam and at noon I bore away into Endeavour Inlet (41°09'1'S, 174°10.4'E), to find my mooring. The wind eddied round onto the nose, so I rolled up the jib and motored in. The mooring I'd intended to borrow – which belonged to a local sailing club – was occupied by a 30 ft boat, Mr Busby. I reckoned he'd probably leave later, so prepared to anchor, but the two men on board waved to me and beckoned me alongside, hospitably putting out fenders.

"We're going off in an hour or so," one of them told me, " so you might as well pick up the mooring."

They were surprised to find me alone and even more taken aback when I said I was bound for Nelson. "That's a gutsy trip to do single-handed," commented the skipper. I felt rather pleased with myself. We chatted for a while, I tidied up the boat and later they kindly took my line to the buoy before casting off theirs and setting off across the Inlet to another anchorage.

I reflected on my 12 mile epic. The engine and autopilot had been excellent and the jib did its thing satisfactorily. The next leg was a long one, and I'd be using the main, but I'd been pleased at the way that Joshua had sailed under jib alone – she could be left for a few moments without having hysterics, which was very reassuring. With her fin keel and balanced, spade rudder (not my ideal choice) I'd thought she might be very skittish. For a while I sat in the cockpit, enjoying the lovely bay, with bellbirds singing all around. But the cold soon drove me below.

I spent the afternoon pottering and tidying and carefully cooked myself a meal of chickpeas, aubergine and rice – my idea of a feast. Keeping busy and eating hot food made me feel more self-confident, but the forecast was still atrocious and I turned in, fairly sure that I would be going nowhere in the morning.

Most parts of New Zealand have a local shipping forecast that is played continually on the VHF and when I woke in the morning I turned it on. It was ghastly: 55 knots, occasionally more in 'Cook', which is where I was headed. I listened to the actuals: 67 knots at Brothers a mere 15 miles away as the shag flies. I decided to stay put.

We were wonderfully sheltered. The sun came out for a while and I put the inflatable dinghy over and tried unsuccessfully to unblock the heads outlet. There was a holding tank in the system and I had only just discovered the blockage . I could do nothing about it, so put it on the 'to do' list, sighed and got out the bucket.   I whipped some ropes and scrubbed the decks. By lunch time, gusts had started to eddy round the bay and Joshua chased around the mooring.

The sun vanished, to be replaced by a cold, thin drizzle. The wind gusted down the hatch and I felt cold, low and rather lonely. When snow started eddying into the cabin I wondered what on earth I was doing there, alone on a mooring in the middle of winter, and with no heater.  However, I went forward, dug out a few more clothes and made cheese toasties. The clothes were excellent, the food warmed me and if I wasn't exactly cosy, at least I was no longer cold. I read until dark, when I decided to go to my warm bed. It was blowing 75 knots at Brothers. I listened one more time at about 2200, before going to sleep, and the wind had dropped to a mere 55 knots. Perhaps the worst was over. It was wonderfully snug to know I was secure while the wind howled over head.

I was up at first light the next morning and had a hot and hearty breakfast. The forecast for Cook was 30 knots and easing. If I wanted to make the tide at Cape Jackson, I'd better get moving, so at 0745, I cast off the mooring and motored out of Pukekoikoi Bay. Overhead the sky was a clear blue and cats-paws dashed across the water all around. With such fluky breezes I kept on motoring. 
The actual at Brothers was S 20 knots: it was obviously very sheltered in the Sound, but soon the coast would fall away and I would actually be able to see Brothers Is, so it was worth motoring to find that fair breeze.

We chugged on up the W shore, passing Resolution Bay and Ship Cove. So many reminders of Captain Cook in this area. Once past Motuara I and out of its lee, I should pick up my breeze, so was both surprised and disappointed to enter Cook Strait and find it almost calm. In the summer, I'd have gone to find an anchorage and waited for a breeze, but at this time of the year felt it would be much more prudent to get past Cape Jackson and Alligator Head, before doing so.

The engine behaved beautifully, the little autopilot did its stuff and I admired the scenery while drinking coffee and wondering at how different 2 days could be. The sun was almost hot!  Considering it was the first day of June, it hardly seemed like winter.

At 1035 the log read: "Cape Jackson aka Cape Horn abeam! Hardly any wind and overfalls merely interesting. What a relief!"

By midday a breeze came in from the W and for a while we sailed happily along on a close reach. The breeze increased and I put a reef in the mainsail. What a performance! The so-called jiffy reefing took forever. The internal halliard was led back to the cockpit and several trips were required to lower sufficient sail and then raise some of it back up. The logic of the system failed me: surely it would be much easier to handle the halliard from the mast, as I had to go there anyway to wrestle with sail slides and hook the cringle onto the boom? As I sheeted the sail in, I promised Joshua that one day I would fit a junk rig!

As we brought Forsyth I abeam, the wind came in from ahead. There were 11 miles to go to an anchorage just north of French Pass and we could make it under power. I doubted we could beat there in the four hours of daylight left and debated going elsewhere. However, the timing for French Pass was critical and with the days being so short, it only made sense to go through at the morning slack water.

Sighing, I dropped the mainsail, rolled up the jib and turned on the engine. Although only 10 HP, it made short work of the chop and F4 on the nose and we made surprisingly good speed, picking up a mooring in Cherry Tree Bay, Catherines Cove (40°52.3'S, 173°52.5'E) at 1555. We were another 35 miles on our way.

I felt a sense of elation. Cape Jackson was behind us, we were out of the Cook Strait and only the curve of the bay prevented me from seeing French Pass. A friend had given me a bottle of bubbly to celebrate my new command and this seemed a suitable time to open it. As the low sun reflected back off the water, I toasted my little ship.

I set the alarm and was up at 0600 the next morning. I was concerned about my timing, because there's only a short period of slack water and the tide tables aren't entirely accurate, so I got underway at 0715, as soon as it was light enough to see. 

It was flat calm, but I preferred this to the thought of facing the Pass with a capful of wind. By my reckoning, we arrived 15 minutes early, but the tide still ran strongly against us in the narrows. The water swirled and eddied round the underwater rocks and hidden obstructions. The engine did its best, but we seemed to mark time. At last the Pass relented and we were allowed through, the bow swinging this way and that as the fierce eddies caught us, but there was no real danger.  Next time I'd arrive on the late side – at least it would all be over a lot faster! As we came out from Current Basin, a N F2 filled in and I set the jib.

With my worries now behind me, I was starting to enjoy myself and toyed with the idea of sailing into Croisilles Harbour for the night. But I would be out of both radio and mobile phone range and Trevor might start to worry if he heard nothing from me. If I kept moving, I could make it to Nelson just before dark, so for the rest of the day we motored, sailed and motorsailed in the sunshine, with the whole of Tasman Bay to ourselves.

 At 1700 I sent a text to Trevor warning him of my arrival and he was there to take my lines as I coasted into my marina berth.

It may seem foolish to make so much fuss of such a straightforward delivery trip, but for all that, I felt very proud of myself, and the start of a real affection for the little boat I had shared it with.

A few days later I put her alongside the piles and changed those seacocks!