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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

18 April, 2012

A Passage North

Fantail sails towards Adele I
For some time, I have been planning to take Fantail up to North Island, where there is an abundance of interesting cruising. Left to my own devices, I would probably have put if off until 2013, but there were two good reasons to go now: once was a planned Royal Cruising Club Meet in the Bay of Islands, the second was a forthcoming Junk Rig Association rally. My friend David, had done a huge amount to help me get Fantail fit to go to sea, and as he was most certainly going to attend the JRA rally, I felt that the very least I could do in return for his help was to show him it hadn’t been in vain, So accordingly, in the middle of February, I left my home base at Motueka and set off north.

I had been working so long and so hard on the boat, that I felt I needed a couple of nights’ rest before heading off. I find that it’s sometimes hard to change my mindset from working through the jobs list to concentrating on things like pilotage. I’d made a couple of silly mistakes when I went away over Christmas and didn’t want to do the same again, so I sailed a little way up Tasman Bay to anchor off the Abel Tasman National Park and start thinking about the passage. I hadn’t even had a proper chance to look at charts up until then.

On the morning of 16th February, I got my anchor and sailed out. I felt a bit sorry to be leaving, because I had grown really to enjoy Motueka; I wondered how I’d manage several days of single-handing and a little frightened in case I couldn’t cope. Several friends had suggested I take someone else, but Fantail is not a large boat and with someone else on board, I should have had to consider their wishes and, possibly, even try to fit in with their schedule. Going on my own seemed by far the better option.

We started slowly, but soon got a fair wind. Early on a made a silly mistake and bore away when I should have hardened in, but an hour with the motor sorted that and topped up the battery, too. I think I was still a bit tired. I fretted about keeping well away from Farewell Spit and did such a good job of it that I never even saw the lighthouse! I tried every method I could think of to decide that we had truly passed it before I dared alter course, because although I have a hand-held GPS, I still don’t entirely trust it. The wind was about F4 and we were making good progress and once into the Cook Strait, it picked up to where I was thinking of reefing - we were doing 6.7 knots at times. However, although I felt pretty anxious (at the best of times I don’t really like going fast), Fantail seemed very happy, the self-steering was coping with only one link of weather helm on it and although the motion was pretty wild at first (possibly we had wind against tide) she was coping fine.

6.5 knots the first evening
As ever when one decides it’s finally time to leave, there were still jobs undone. I wired in a socket so that I could plug in the GPS and replaced the fiddle for one of the bookshelves, having cut the original too short; I thought about the bolt that I still hadn’t fitted to the lower washboard, but it was really too rough to start playing around with my drill and I was worried I'd get seasick. I took a Stugeron pill, just in case. The forecast was for the wind to ease later in the day but for gales by Sunday, so I pressed on to be well away from sea area Stephens. Later on I caught a new forecast, this one from a different repeater. Irritatingly, it gave forecasts for the whole of S Island, but nothing for Raglan – the next sea area north and I was to get no further forecast for several days.

I’d had a small glass of wine to celebrate rounding Farewell Spit and an hour or so later I decided that the mast might well survive the night, the sail wasn’t tearing itself apart and nothing had come adrift inside or out. Maybe Fantail could cope with F5. On this happy note, I decided to have another glass and I suddenly realised that far from being tense and unhappy, I was feeling hugely relaxed and contented. I felt so at home and we were making splendid progress in the right direction. I didn’t feel at all concerned about keeping watch. I had seen nothing since I left Tasman Bay, apart from the lights of a rig, or a large fishing vessel in the distance and couldn’t find it in myself to worry about being run down.

I cooked a lovely meal of garlic, onions and red peppers mixed in with fresh broad beans and pasta and ate it with appetite and another glass of wine. And felt quite happy about that other glass, too!

Cooking my first meal on passage
I washed up and put everything away and when it was dark, got undressed and climbed into my bunk up forward. It was still rough, but I was surprisingly comfortable and it felt so good to be in my real bed instead of camping out down a quarter berth. I looked out whenever the urge took me, but did not bother to be religious about it.  (In fact I saw no vessel at all until I was up near Cape Reinga.)  With the bottom washboard in, I can easily get my head out to look all round the horizon, but I fitted the second because it was a bit splashy at times, and wriggling round that is slightly more difficult.  The wind took off about 0400 and I got some good sleep. 

At 0845, 24 hours out, I put a fix on the chart and saw that we'd made 113 miles.  At this rate … My ‘chart table’ consists of a piece of half-inch plywood, cut to the size of a chart folded in two. It fits at the head of the starboard quarter berth and because it extends slightly into the berth itself, never slides off. Sitting on the companionway step I can work at it very easily. It’s a great success.

The 'chart table'
  We had lost the wind  and were ambling along, more or less on course, at about 2 knots.  I still had this uncanny feeling of calm and contentment.  There I was, barely out of the Southern Ocean, unable to pick up a forecast of any description and feeling wonderful.  For some made reason, my course took me 60 miles west of Cape Egmont: I hadn’t intended to. It must have been a Freudian slip because I had thought of going more like 20 miles offshore, so I could pick up a forecast, but now I had no chance of doing so. I just hoped the 7-day rain forecasts that I’d looked at before I left, were correct.  These seem the most accurate of all, and the little charts show predicted wind speed and direction, so are ideal for the sailor.  As it turned our, they proved reliable.

So gentle the motion, it was easy to make breakfast.  The cloudscape was very familiar - a very offshore, neo-Trade Wind collection of small cumulus, all lined up in rows; the odd early-morning rain shower slowly dying away around us as the air warmed.  

The cloudscape was very familiar
There was only a very small swell running - good news for me with still over 200 miles before I could turn east.  I continued to be astonished by this, waiting for the apprehension and worry to descend like a cloud again; wondering that I could feel so un-alone.  I was so enjoying my independence; and the only cloud on the horizon was the thought of bad weather.  I am absurdly scared of this - probably because Fantail and I haven’t been through any yet.  Of course, the obvious thing would be to go out and find some, but I’m too chicken for that!

The day’s wind varied from light to calm and I motored for a while.  Only 3.6 knots - a bit of a surprise that it must be the swell, slight though it was.  I decided it wasn’t worth using the motor unless the speed dropped below 2 knots.  We sailed into a light W, which in due course became S and stayed with us all night.  Miles and miles offshore so the only radio reception was on AM. I was still really enjoying myself.

I drank my usual ration of wine.  I cooked one of my favourite meals: a salad made with slightly cooked courgette, mushrooms, green pepper, tiny plum tomatoes and runner beans and thoroughly cooked potatoes.  Dressed with olive oil and lemon, and with some walnuts and a couple of handsful of leaves it was yummy, but far too much.  it made a lovely lunch the following day!

I washed up and turned in at 2100.  Again I got up whenever I woke up, to look around.  The wind picked up a little and I altered course a couple of times.  The self-steering that my friend, David, and I made, works wonderfully well.  It steers perfectly in the lightest of winds.  In the dark of the night, we had to gybe.  Oh, it was so painless!  It took me about 5 seconds.  How I love this rig!

By 0845 on the morning of the 18th, we had made 190 miles.  Considering how light the winds had been, I was pretty pleased.  We had motored about 6 hours in total, by then.  The breeze was still only around F2, but we pottered along at between 2 and 3.5 knots, enjoying the benign weather, with a steady glass and no immediate worries.  It was so good to feel relaxed and with nothing that had to be done, after all the work of the past few weeks and months.  Motoring seemed pointless as long as we were making over 2 knots, but we were obviously not going to have a fast passage.  I just hoped no-one would worry, after all the fuss I’d made about it. 

I tuned into Radio New Zealand on AM and got the long-range land forecast.  Northerlies filling in on Tuesday and I didn’t think I had much chance of getting to North Cape by then.  However, no-one was predicting gales, so that was a relief. 

In the afternoon, I sat down with a book and read in the hot sun, but the wind got lighter and lighter and I resorted to the motor. I didn't want to push my luck by staying out any longer than I need to - not on my first offshore passage.  It was a shame to spoil the peace, but on the other hand, better to have too little wind than too much.

The wind fell away completely
I turned the engine off about 2100 and turned in.  I couldn’t bring myself to leave the engine on when I was asleep, because I didn’t think a strange smell or sound would wake me up quickly enough.  We didn’t make much progress, but on the other hand, a girl needs to sleep.

In the morning, I motored again.  I shut down the engine for a while and turned on the radio to see if I could get the long-range land forecast on National Radio.  I did: they were forecasting more N winds so I decided to carry on motoring. 

By 1400, the wind had picked up a bit, so I shut down the engine. I looked out about 1700 and the clouds over the land had lifted: suddenly I could see hills! It was quite a shock and a part of me was a bit disappointed.  It had been marvellous being at sea and out of sight of land.  The wind was now a dead noser, but we were sailing well, and as there was no bad weather forecast, I felt I could lose a bit of my offing.  So we carried on sailing towards the land until midnight, when I tacked offshore.

Suddenly I could see hills!
I put a fix on the chart about 0300 on Tuesday, which told me that we were heading much further W than I wanted.  While I was up, I looked at my phone to see if it had a signal.  It did, so I sent a txt to a friend to say how we were going, and to my surprise got one back - he was enjoying a night sail. So knowing that he had a smart phone, I asked if he could see what the weather forecast for Kaipara was: N breezes continuing, but not strong. However, he said the 7-day rain forecast was looking pretty nasty for Thursday.  We were still 50 miles from Cape Reinga and I decided that come daylight, we would have to try and get north as fast as we could: I didn't want to get caught out in nasty weather around the top of N Island.

At first light I could see that Fantail was really doing quite nicely, close-hauled, in F2-3. making about 3.4 knots, which I thought very satisfactory.  On the other hand, we weren’t laying the course and I’d put all that diesel on board for just this eventuality.  I didn’t want to find myself beating round Cape Reinga in a capful of wind.  The barometer was still steady, there was no swell, but ...   So I apologised to the wee ship and wound up the engine.  With the sail sheeted hard in and the revs cranked up a bit, we were soon making about 4 knots in the right direction.  As it turned out, this was a lucky decision.  By Thursday it was blowing very freshly and the barometer had hardly moved. 

We plugged on all day and I put in another 5l of diesel at noon.  I should have topped up again, but it was a bit rough and I didn’t want to spill any.  Again, it had been a good decision to keep the tank pretty full for just such a situation.  Then I read, as that was about all I could do, heeling as we were and bouncing about a bit, too.  But by no means uncomfortable.

The land inshore of 90-mile beach is quite weird, with huge sand dunes running into what appear to be low mountains.  it looks a bit like golden glaciers in the distance.  And in the distance is where it stayed as I didn't

... huge sand dunes
  want to be anywhere near that beach.  At its NW end is Pandora Bank which looks as though it could be a distinctly nasty place to be in any sort of wind or swell.  We still had little of either, but I wasn't going to take any chances. On the other hand ... I moved my waypoint much closer to Cape Reinga, taking care to avoid the overfalls shown on the chart.  Even so, there were several miles of quite unpleasant jobble, 10 miles out.  I would give it a very wide berth in bad weather.  God forbid I should ever have to.  By 1500, it looked as though we might have some tide with us, as we were making very good progress.  The concomitant of that, of course, was that later we had it against us.

I was idly looking out, just after 4 o'clock, when I saw the most enormous flying fish I have ever seen in my life!  It was at least 2 feet long, with long, wide ‘wings’.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I didn’t think they lived round here.

Half an hour later, Cape Reinga was finally abeam and we could alter course.  Earlier, I had hoped that when this happened, we would be able to sail, but the wind seemed to be following the coast, and from being N x E was now E x N.   The water was still greatly disturbed by all the tidal activity and progress was slow.  But the good little engine went on chugging happily away. 

I had also hoped to have some dramatic photos, but it was generally overcast by now, and nothing looked very exciting in the general gloom.  It was dark by 2100, which is why I didn’t see the fish floats that Fantail drove over.  I heard them, however, and was just in time to put the engine into neutral.  They hung up on the self-steering paddle for a few seconds, before sliding off.  One was hard plastic, the other aluminium.  I don’t suppose they did a lot for the paintwork.  I still haven’t got any eyes painted on Fantail, so it’s not surprising the poor little thing didn’t see them.  I am really pleased that the prop comes out of the back of the keel and doesn't dangle off a P-bracket.  It feels much more secure.

By 2230, the wind had backed enough that we could start sailing again.  The engine was politely thanked and stood down.  It was blissfully quiet.  North Cape was finally abeam at 2325.  I wanted to tell someone this astonishing news, but there was no cellphone reception, so I had to content myself with congratulating me.  I also congratulated myself for taking the W Coast route: after seeing nothing for days, suddenly there was shipping about - fishing boats and the odd freighter.  I gave the land a good berth and at midnight, altered course finally towards the S - 132°.  I opened a quarter bottle of bubbly that I’d earlier put in the fridge and drank toasts to my boat and my friends who helped us get here. 

I hardly slept at all, which made me extra pleased  that I’d made sure I had ‘plenty in the bank’.  There were quite a few ships about and I think I was too excited at the prospect that we might actually get there in one piece! I still felt in control and was perhaps rather absurdly pleased with my decision making and navigation.  As the latter was by GPS, I’m not sure what there is to be so pleased about, but there we are.  For all that, I was very satisfied with how the passage had gone and that I hadn’t made any silly blunders. 

I was wide awake not long after dawn, which, with our now being so far E and N, as well as the sky being overcast, was at about 0700.  We were scooting along nicely under sail, with more than a hint that the wind was going to increase.  I was now in VHF  range and could get a shipping forecast, which also promised more wind in the offing.  At one point, a huge school of Dusky Dolphins came leaping and bounding across in front of us.  They were so full of life and joie de vivre, that they made me laugh out loud.

To get in, I had the chart of North island and the cruising guide chart which showed Whangaroa Harbour.  But I had nothing else.  It was a somewhat inadequate combination, especially for a tired sailor.  Knowing Whangaroa is not a particularly easy place to find, I was a bit stressed and the grey and murky conditions didn’t help. The sea was a rough, with quite a swell building, the wind shifting back and forth though about 40 or 50° and neither the wind vane nor the Simrad could cope, so, horror of horrors I was having to hand steer.  There’s a sizeable island off the mouth of the harbour, too far out to sea for the book’s chart to show.  In the poor, early morning light I didn’t see it on the small-scale chart, hidden as it was among pencilled waypoints, a light symbol and blue soundings. My carefully plotted waypoints appeared to be taking me into the wrong place.  
... the wrong place.
Eventually I did what I should have done sooner, and got out a magnifying glass and looked on the small scale chart. And there was the island.  I could probably have gone inside the damn thing and saved myself about 5 miles.  Never mind, all was clear now and I went on with much greater confidence.  Things only improved when a steady trickle of launches reinforced my estimate of where the entrance lay.

The entrance to the harbour is very narrow.  With the wind being up and down and unsure what the tide was doing - it can run fast, apparently - I didn't want to reef in case we lost the wind inside: from where we were it looked calm.  This wasn’t the brightest move, as it turned out, because as we approached the entrance, the waves started to steepen.  I suspect the tide was ebbing, but as the wind chose this moment to increase quite sharply – or was funnelled by the surrounding cliffs – we were blasting along anyway and it was hard to tell whether we had tide with or against us.  For once Fantail didn’t behave with her usual good manners and was being difficult to steer – probably due to tidal eddies – and the swell was breaking rather impressively on either side of the entrance.  

The entrance to Whangaroa
I'd hate to enter in real wind and waves.  It looked about 20 ft wide as we approached and while I knew I was in control, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Fantail wasn’t going to take over and leap onto the awash rocks on our starboard side.  We must have been making 6 or 7 knots through the water, but for all that it seemed to take an age to get through the entrance.  It was with a huge sigh of relief that I felt the pressure come off as we came into the harbour; the swell vanished and the sea smoothed. 

There were boats everywhere.  The harbour has two distinct characters: the N end is mountainous and often compared with fjord country, but in my opinion it looks more like Moorea; the S end is lower and more open.  I hadn’t come all this way to anchor among mountains and be blown hither and yon by katabatic winds, so I thought I’d make for the lower land around Totara North. Now I did what I should have done a lot sooner and dropped 3 reefs in the sail – the first ones of the passage – and things were much more relaxed.  Typically weird kiwi yachts were wandering about, and there were lots of sports fishing launches going out to harass the poor creatures.  The anchorage at Totara North is much more indented and roomy than the the impression I’d got from the chart.  Irritatingly, another boat took the spot I’d eyed up, but remembering how little room we actually need, I anchored a lot closer to the shore than I normally would, in a gratifyingly shallow 4 m or so.  Later, I stretched out the chain under power and was still miles off the beach.

By the time I had tidied up and washed the breakfast things, it had started to rain and I congratulated myself on our excellent timing.  The wind became quite gusty and even here, was funnelled a bit by the neighbouring topography, but I have learnt to trust my ground tackle.  I sat down and tried to take it in - the passage perilous was won and there I was safely at anchor in North Island. I got out the bubbly.

Totara North