Alex and Lesley Stone share the story of their summer cruise around Aotearoa, New Zealand by catamaran

The thing about Covid is that it upsets the best-laid plans, as it did for the Island Cruising Club, a New Zealand-based outfit that organises flotillas to sail to the Pacific Islands every year. When casting around for alternatives, Viki Moore, the cheerful convener of Island Cruising NZ, lit upon the obvious solution – the Te Wai Pounamu, the South Island of New Zealand, otherwise known as the Waters of Greenstone.

Sixteen yachts and their crews took up this idea, including half a dozen catamarans. So in a real sense, she really was herding cats – cruising yachties being a fairly free-spirited lot at the best of times.

We were among them, on our Schionning-design 12m cruising catamaran, Skyborne. Also in the fleet were Lisa and Martin Bennett on Champagne, although Lisa often followed along in a campervan with their dog.

Elusive weather window

We mustered at Opua in the Bay of Islands, North Island, a day or so after Christmas, and awaited the call of Bruce Buckley – the professional weather forecaster Viki had engaged for the safety of the fleet.

This is where our first challenge set in. There simply wasn’t a decent weather window to allow us to sail up around North Cape and Cape Reinga (at the northern end of North Island), and then down to Abel Tasman National Park (on the north tip of South Island), our planned first landfall.

Mount Taranaki before dawn

Unless, said Bruce, we were prepared to endure two, maybe three days of strong winds on the nose after rounding Reinga. In reality, you have to sail a further 20 miles out to clear the notorious Pandora Banks – breaking seas in all conditions.

Waiting for just the right moment to make best use of the available weather windows became the theme of the trip, but we didn’t mind, as our stopovers were in such lovely, little-known places.
At the beginning of the first leg we pulled in further north at Whangaroa Harbour for an overnight anchorage, followed by a daysail to Mangōnui, a charming harbour town. As we entered the channel, a pod of orca were just leaving.

Bruce, our weatherman told us: ‘If you want to go down the west coast, you’ll have to face two or three days of strong southerlies, then the wind should ease in your favour.’ Some boats opted to stay put in Northland, a forested, sub-tropical region on North Island, others took the route south along the east coast. Martin, true to form, took off immediately with other staunch blokes as crew. We followed a day later. And yes, the wind did ease, exactly when Bruce, and the precise New Zealand-developed forecasting system PredictWind had predicted.

In fact, one enduring take-away from the trip was the plethora of navigational information we now have access to. Viki could track the entire flotilla, and each of us the others, by means of the PredictWind router app with its course-tracking option.

Kayakers relax on a beach in the Astrolabe Roadway

On our boat we also had access to open source nautical charts, NZ marine charts online (though they have some holes – see later), the navigational app Navionics, plus hand-held GPS devices. And as a final back-up, rolls of old-fashioned paper charts.

Another theme for the trip emerged. It was a seabird and wildlife safari of amazing sights. On every day at sea, we encountered dolphins more than once. Also some very rare Māui dolphins off the Taranaki coast on the west of North Island. And a seal, just lazing on the surface 60 miles offshore. Also blue whales (on this first leg), orca, and 1,001 albatrosses. And, this far north, many flying fish.

Arriving in Abel Tasman National Park, on the north end of South Island, we learned again just how beautiful this country is, but best viewed from the sea as the national park was very busy at the height of summer. We particularly enjoyed the marine reserve at Tonga Island, off the north coast of South Island, for example, with its safe anchorage, and wetland walkway.

Crew changes at toad hall

The real world of deadlines crept in with crew members to drop off at Motueka Marina, further to the east (which also dries out at low tide), for flights back to Auckland. Later, we lunched at the delightful, oak-dappled Toad Hall brewery and café. A look around too at Coppins – a family company, which has been on the main street for 100 years – that makes the best sea anchors in the world.

One of the stunning rock formations in Whangaroa Harbour, this one in Te Rere Bay

Then whanau (family) to fetch in Nelson, the oldest city on South Island, slightly further east. And a fun adventure, following the Maitai Creek through the middle of Nelson to a monument on a hill that marks the ‘Centre of New Zealand’, sort of.

On our way up the creek on our kayaks, we marvelled at the number of terrific sculptures along the river walkway. It included a lovely female form, ‘Sanctuary’ by sculptor Fiona Sutherland, just beyond – a serene Papatūānuku (earth mother goddess) figure cradling a takahē (native bird) in her lap, and artfully placed, half-hidden in a bed of flax bushes.

Then, just as we were halted by a small rapid in the Maitai, there’s the walk up to the centre of New Zealand. It turns out the ‘Centre of New Zealand’ is simply the datum point for the very first colonial settlers’ land survey – and co-incidentally somewhere in the middle of the country.

Big tides in Nelson

Navigation notes: Nelson is remarkable for its huge tides. On the day we went up the creek, there was a king tide of 4.7m, well above the normal high of 4m. And a stiff local sea breeze that defies all weather predictions from distant systems. One day there, six weather models said there’d be a light southerly of 5 knots. But in Tasman Bay, a sea breeze of around 20 knots quickly developed – strong enough for our mainsail head fitting to tear out. This was quickly repaired by Southern Sails in Nelson.

Onwards! We headed towards the notorious French Pass. It’s one of New Zealand’s most challenging bits of water, between D’Urville Island and a finger of land in the Marlborough Sounds, where the tide can run at up to 9 knots in a kind of horizontal waterfall across a line of rocks.

Kayakers rafting up to take advantage of the wind on their way back into Rākauroa (Torrent Bay)

As always, Martin on Champagne was ahead of us, though he timed the tide imperfectly, and got swirled around a bit on his way through. We made a more demure passage, bang on the turn of the tides, in the company of another Island Cruising Club yacht, the aptly-named Knysna 50 catamaran, My Happiness.

That done, we anchored for the night at Catherine Cove. Later in the Marlborough Sounds, we pulled in at Whakatahuri, on the north tip of South Island.

The most remote boatbuilders – and boat-wreckers – yard in New Zealand is situated on a narrow spit of land in the remote outer Pelorus Sound. There is no road access to this point.

A few days later, we found ourselves detained in the little town of Havelock, for all the right reasons. There’s so much to explore here – a small museum or Graham Smith’s extraordinary shrine to the British Seagull outboard motor – he has more than 150 of them.

The Te Hoiere Seagull Fleet organises races in the Pelorus River delta every two months. The rules: any boat will do – the weirder, the better – as long as it’s propelled by a Seagull outboard.

Whakatahuri boatyard and ship wrecker, in the outer Pelorus Sound is accessible via the Havelock mailboat, once a week

The elusive weather window kept us detained in the Marlborough Sounds for weeks. Bird-watching in the Sounds is a treat. Among New Zealand’s rare birds, no-one ever seems to talk about the kawau king shag of which there are only 130 breeding pairs left. Almost all of them are in Queen Charlotte Sound.

Our next overnight anchorage, after exiting the also-notorious Tory Channel (tides of up to 7 knots, plus Interislander ferries to contend with) is at Port Underwood. Which, from the land is well worth exploring, following the great self-guided Port Underwood Heritage Tour on an app.

Then we had a difficult overnight passage to Lyttleton, just south of Christchurch, on North Island, where we had rising winds and seas, cold, and no stars. We also had to slow the boat down from our 14 knots, by constantly reducing sail, to make Lyttleton Port in daylight. But it was all made up by the 50 common dolphins who welcomed us at dawn in the harbour mouth, with a full-on kapa haka (song and dance) display.

Of course Lisa had already got there by campervan, and was on board Champagne in the fine new marina in Lyttleton.

My Happiness leading us towards French Pass. Timing has to be perfect to minimise the potential for turbulence

In search of dolphins

Next was a daysail around the headland south to Akaroa, accompanied all the way by many different groups of the charming Hector’s dolphins. We found Akaroa doing just fine with a brisk trade in dolphin tours, including one on the 100-year-old sailing ketch Fox II, taking out visitors every day. Kiwi visitors are re-discovering our own country, just like us. We resorted to a borrowed car, to get over the hill to the remarkable and remote Okains Bay Museum. Which has an extraordinary collection of waka (Māori dugout canoes).

The good folk at the Akaroa Yacht club were most hospitable. This was the last time the boats of the Island Cruising Club South Island rally got together with an epic seafood meal aboard My Happiness, and a pirate party at the Har Bar overlooking the bay.

We left from there, following My Happiness back north up the east coast along the dramatic Wairarapa coast, all the while marking places to visit from land again sometime soon: the light show at the Castlepoint lighthouse, or remote fishing communities where they launch boats through the monster surf.

Waikawa boaties hurry home to beat a classic South Island Southerly buster, while one of the Cook Strait ferries battles towards Picton in 50 knots of wind

Weather bomb delay

We noticed large parts of the Wairarapa coastline remained uncharted. A legacy of the neo-liberal policies of a previous New Zealand government, that decreed it wasn’t the navy’s role. We were further held up in the marina in Napier on the east coast of North Island, when a weather bomb washed masses of ‘forestry slash’ down the rivers and out to sea.

We waited till the sea cleared, resolving to sail on in daylight hours. Later, we found plenty of logs choking up the Gisborne Harbour, a daysail away.

No worries, this gave us more time to meet great sailing characters: the brave sailors of the Napier Sailability (disabled sailing) unit, who crossed Cook Strait in a storm in their Australian-designed Liberty-class dinghies; the local historian, who showed me great pictures of Napier Sailing Club’s fleet (including the world’s first planing yachts) sailing, before the 1931 earthquake. That earthquake lifted the land by two metres, erasing most of the extensive lagoon that was there.

Martin, Champagne, Panthera and the other yachts continued with the full figure of eight, via Rakiura Stewart Island and Fiordland, and back to Nelson. I’m hanging out for the slide show, next time we see them. Way to go!

Akaroa’s old lighthouse used to be further out in the harbour, but was moved to town to be a landmark visitor attraction

Top ten options for exploring New Zealand by yacht

  • Whangaroa Harbour – Whangaroa Harbour is perhaps the most beautiful of all of New Zealand’s harbours and also one of the safest.
  • Tonga Island – The marine reserve at Tonga Island, off the north coast of South Island, has a safe anchorage. It has a wetland walkway where we encountered a weka, the tough flightless bird with adorably fluffy chicks.
  • Awaroa Lodge – A great coffee shop at the Awaroa Lodge, just a short walk away from the white sands of Awaroa Inlet in the Abel Tasman National Park.
  • Nelson – The city of Nelson, South Island. Walk down Maitai Creek to a monument that marks the ‘Centre of New Zealand’ with glorious views.
  • D’urville Island – Catherine Cove on D’Urville Island and the superlative aroma of Cathy’s Kitchen at the Wilderness Lodge.
  • Whakatahuri – Whakatahuri on the north tip of South Island on the Marlborough Sounds. The most remote boatbuilder’s yard in New Zealand.
  • Havelock – Havelock at the south end of Pelorus Sound has many things to see.
  • Marlborough Sounds – Marlborough Sounds is the wonderful bird sanctuary on Motuara Island, accessible by water taxis or your own runabout from Picton.
  • Lincoln – The Laboratory in Lincoln, south of Christchurch, South Island, has a boutique brewery, restaurant and community cinema.
  • Okains Bay – Okains Bay, south-east of Christchurch, South Island. The museum has an extraordinary collection of Māori dugout canoes.

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