It was only when I reached Tonga that I could even begin to contemplate sailing on to New Zealand. This had always been the final goal of the trip, but it was always something so far off, some event in the distant future, too remote to intrude into the daily routine of exploring, maintenance, sailing, weather, and all the other things that keep me busy aboard. Suddenly though, here it was, the next challenge, and my final long passage of this journey. One thousand miles down into the southern ocean and out of the tropics, to a land that has intrigued me and a place I feel strangely and strongly drawn to. We spent some time in Tonga tapu preparing Kuhela, and ourselves, for the trip. Kim flew back in to join us and it was great to have him back on board and in some ways it was like he never left. I have been so lucky with crew this entire trip and refused to believe that on the last passage that the right person would not show up, and so after a few messages back and forth he agreed to jump back on and complete what we had started together so many months ago. We filled up on fuel, water and all the fresh fruit and veg we could carry and began the waiting game to see when the weather would let us through. We would not be the only one making our way south, this would be more like a staggered departure of the entire fleet, each wave taking their turn and the weather they thought best. Daily I would chat to the other skippers around and compare notes on weather and passage plans. This is something that has obvious advantages and some subtle disadvantages. Its great to be able to call on the experience of other cruisers, but with so many people talking and comparing and analysing, there are as many options as there are boats and it is easy to get stuck into an endless cycle of talking and revising plans. This wasn’t helped at all by the rapid changing of the weather as the fronts that spun off Australia and made their way eastward seemed to be non-stop and were giving no break or time between one to the next. In the end though everyone must make their own call, and after waiting and watching we saw what I considered to be the best window I had seen in some time, and It was time to go. We planned to head to Minerva reef, 250NM to the southwest to put some miles under the keel and have a better shot and making it to New Zealand in the short time between systems. We said good-bye to some really great friends that we had made in Tonga, checked over things on board and then pulled anchor and set ourselves loose to the ocean once again. The sun shone strong on our faces and backs as we made our way out through the reefs where a light breeze filled the sails and glided us along to the horizon. I felt excited, nervous, and anxious about what we would face in the coming days, there was more here than just this passage, this was a step that would take me to the accomplishment of a dream, and that alone was enough to stir some very deep and profound feelings. With full sails and a gentle roll though, the feeling of contentment outweighed whatever else was lurking below and so on we sailed. Suddenly though the wind gave a strong gust, and then abruptly died, leaving our sails hanging limp against the mast for a few minutes, before totally changing direction and taking us from a nice downwind run to a hard beat into headwinds. It was an early sign that this may not be a straightforward trip. Though I may have felt drawn to NZ, it didn’t mean it was going to be easy getting there.
Soon after the wind started easing and it wasn’t long before it simply disappeared altogether, forcing us to start the engine. With such short weather windows to make it, I had filled up with all the diesel Kuhela could carry and planned to keep the boat moving as best we could, even if it meant listening to the clamour of the engine for a day or two. For the next twenty three hours the ocean was absolute glass, the gentlest swell faintly perceptible as it rolled its way under us and off to the horizon. Then the following afternoon, just as the sun melted away, a puff of breeze came dancing across the water and then another and soon enough the whole face of the ocean had changed from something so smooth and reflective to a rippled and moving surface. I called the boys up on deck to see the change and soon we had sails up and the drone of the engine was replaced by lapping of water and flapping of sails, a very welcome change. We had pretty good wind after that for the rest of the run to Minerva but it was apparent we would be arriving there in the dark and I was a bit reluctant about coming through the pass in the dark, though speaking to a few vessels all ready there on the radio and verifying the GPS marks for the entrance did make it seem pretty straightforward. I decided to delay the decision until we arrived as the wind was forecast to drop off later and though it was a full moon that night, clouds covered most of the sky all day. We made our approach just before midnight and, in the most perfect of welcomes, the wind died right off and the clouds cleared as the full shining face of the moon revealed the entrance to the pass just ahead of us. It really was quite magical as we sailed in from the open ocean to this little oasis and could see the lights of the boats anchored ahead of us. This place is very similar to Beverage reef and it still amazes me that we could safely anchor in the middle of the ocean like this, seven boats all-waiting here for the right window. We spent the next few days getting a few jobs done and exploring in between. Unfortunately we were too far from the pass to access it easily in the dingy to dive, but as the swell was down we decided to walk over the reef and dive on the outside wall of the atoll. At low tide there is a large slab of flat reef that is exposed and we were able to walk over just at low tide with the plan of using the rising tide to get back up and over the reef. It’s a little daunting timing the waves to jump in and swim out past the breakers, especially when you knew that once committed there was no easy way back. I made the jump and swam out to deeper water and Adam and Georgiou (an Italian friend of ours) were soon out as well. What we found was some of the most amazing ground I have ever seen, large cobblestone bottom, with deep gullies flowing off into water that just got bluer and bluer as it fell away to depth. It was stunning, like looking out into space. It was a prime spot for seeing large pelagic fish, and I kept waiting and wishing for a marlin or some other billfish to swim up out of the blue to inspect us. I was the only one with a gun as the others were filming and though I did see some big trout in the deeper water and a few green job fish hanging around just out of range I was content to float and wait for what would come in. Suddenly though a large trivially appeared right next to Adam and I did want to get some fish in the bag so shot him. It was a good shot and he didn’t fight that hard for a fish of his size, but suddenly there they were, the grey sharks started arriving in numbers. They were really aggressive and were coming in hard before veering off at the last minute and it was hard work keeping an eye on all of them as in a few minutes there were maybe 12-15 of varying sizes, and all really active. It got to the point where I decided to give up the fish and fall back a bit to assess things. I let the fish go and it floated away on the surface, but this did nothing to distract them, they kept coming at us totally ignoring a free feed for quite a while until one of them latched on to it and the frenzy was on. We hung back and waited for them to finish but no sooner had they finished than they returned their attention to us and things were becoming quite hectic quite quickly. In my experience its not so much the larger ones but the smaller sharks with less experience that are less weary and seem to be more curious, or aggressive, a few of them earning themselves a good belting with the tip of the spear. I was also conscious of being the only one with any means of keeping them at distance and that there was no easy way out, no dingy nearby and the tide had only just started rising. I called the others and decided to get out of the water, it just wasn’t safe and so we backed off, making our way towards the waves crashing onto the reef. The sharks did fall off as we moved into shallower water but a few hung around until we found a gully that we could swim up into to get out and on to the reef. I have been chased out of the water before, but in a remote area like this with no easy escape it certainly made it interesting.
After a few days, and a few more chats and comparing notes with the others, I made the decision to go as soon as the wind swung from the southwest to the south, and true to the forecast it did so in the early afternoon. So this was it, square away things on board, up with the anchor and set our course to the southwest. It was beautiful day as we made out way out through the pass and into a stiff breeze and we soon the boat settled and making good speed to our target some eight hundred miles away. We settled into the routine easily and decided to make a rhumb line course for NZ and then decide if we should head a bit further west once we were closer. This is the common train of thought with this passage, make a fair bit of ground to the west on your way down so that the front that you are bound to encounter will pass below you and you can use the south west breeze following the front to bring you down to the target. What was unusual though was that there was forecast to be strong southeasterly breeze after the front as another high pushed up quickly behind the passing front. This meant that if we headed west we would then have those winds on the nose, so we followed the direct course to Opua, regularly checking the weather as it developed to the south of us. There was also the a possibility that a defined low could be forming off to the east of New Zealand, not all the weather forecasts were in agreement of this but it was something to keep aware of. The days merged into each other with our passing shifts marking the time, I was on the 4-8 shift, while Adam did 8-12 and Kim 12-4, this enabled me to check in with the radio schedule in the morning where I would report our position and weather, and get a forecast for what we could expect and also ask any questions from people on shore that had better access to weather reports and more experience as to the best course of action. As the miles ticked by the wind came and went and the engine played a big part in keeping us moving steadily along.
Weather forecast are usually only accurate to about three days out, especially with the rapidly changing situations, but now it looked like that low was going to form, and be quite nasty, so we now changed course more to the west to try to avoid the worst of it, also as the winds were now forecast to be southerly, not south easterly later which would make it difficult to make our way south. We would try to make as much westing before the front passed and hopefully be far enough away from the low to only get a slight taste. We knew it was coming, you could see the sky change, as the afternoon went on. Large, heavy clouds slouched their grey bodies off on the horizon and the atmosphere felt heavier as the grey hues and the anticipation combined. The wind was from the North West, and I've spent enough time in the southern hemisphere to know what this meant, the front was coming. It was forecast for just after midnight and I sat up with Adam waiting for it. It’s a strange feeling when you know something is coming, you can’t see it, and you’re not too sure how it will be. You will it to hurry up and start, id rather be in the middle of dealing with something than thinking about it, the mind can easily add its own power to a situation. The suddenness in which a front passes is quite surprising, in an instant the wind goes from NW to SW, and it begins to pick up, and as it did, so we decreased the amount of sail we had up. This also meant that we could no longer make our way west, and began to run off to the SE, which in a stiff breeze had us making great speed. We rode it out for the rest of the night and most of the next day before it started to settle a bit, though clouds still hung low and ominous across the horizon. I drew a line on the chart to the east of us that was as far as I wanted to go, conscious of the low developing out that way, and once we got to that line I turned out course southerly and motor sailed to make as much ground as I could. With the next forecast it was readily apparent that we were going to get hit by the the low as it grew and travelled parallel to us. Things were going to get rough.
My one hope was that, despite the forecast, the wind would have a bit of east in it rather then straight from the south as it would allow us a better angle and to possibly make some miles south as well. When the wind did start to build there did luckily turn out to be some south in it, at least something going in our favour. As it continued to build as we reefed more and more and tried to make our way to the SW and closer to New Zealand. We were soon triple reefed (as small as we could make the main sail) and down to the small jib on the bow as the wind strengthened. I did have one smaller jib on board made specially for storms, but the block at the top of the mast had broken a few days before so there was no way to hoist it, hopefully what we had would hold out. The seas began to build as well and soon enough we were being battered by 35-40 knot winds with a two to three meter sea and swell running. It was far from confortable and waves would regularly come over the side and fill the cockpit while spray would come shooting out and over the bow as we hit the swell ahead of us. Kuhela handled it well though, and the crew managed as best they could, this was actually the first trip that Adam wasn’t sick on, so guess he’s a sailor now. Knowing that this was coming has also given us the chance to cook up food in advance, and have things ready to make it as easy as possible for us. My hope of making any way south was dashed as the large swell made that difficult for us and so we ran off west trying to get away from the worst of it. For thirty six hours or so the storm ran with us, every time we looked like getting away, I would see another tail of it coming up on the weather downloads to catch us again. Kuhela continued to handle it all in stride, though I did find quite a few leaks that would have to be dealt with later. On finding my bed wet one night I opened up the anchor locker just forward of the mattress to see water shooting in through some of the screw holes in the bow, so much for a warm dry bed. There were also water getting into the lockers and all flowing into the bilge and we had to pump that out every five or six hours.
The temperature was also changing rapidly, gone were the days of boardies and a shirt on watch, it was full wet weather gear and a few layers underneath. Now I fully put my hand up for being soft when it comes to the cold, but cold it was. We would try and spend as much time on watch tucked in behind the dodger watching the wind and waves fight and argue with each other just outside. I find it hard to relax when things are like this, worrying about condition of sails and how Kuhela is holding up, and also wanting a couple people up to deal with anything that came up, so sleep took a back seat for a while and I was content to grab a nap here and there. It was tiring and trying but to be totally honest I did enjoy it on some level, the challenge of it, steering my boat through the storm, trying to understand the weather around me, realising that I am only part of the bigger process around me and that the only option was to do what Kuhela and I could manage. As the weather wore on, and did start to lighten a little one of the most frustrating things was listening to the reports of boats that were only fifty miles away from us. They had drastically better weather than we did. While we still had 25-30 knots and a lingering swell, they had clear skies, a beautiful day and no wind at all. I did not realise that it could be that different in such a relatively short distance, a good lesson to learn I guess. These were the boats that turned a bit more westerly earlier than we did, and though they did not get the brunt of the storm that we did, we did get some great footage and had an experience that taught me a lot. Finally there was a perceptible change in the conditions as the sky and the ocean gave up their bickering and settled back into their slower rhythms. We had made it through, no damage to crew or to boat, a few lessons learnt, and another story to pass on.
We were still two days out of NZ and by this point we all just wanted to be there. Winds lightened and then dropped out on us again and it was back to the engine and fighting against a counter current that slowed us even further. There were times when I had to fight the urge to feel as if there was some spiteful force that was keeping us form our target, something that just wouldn’t let us through. It is easy to slip into this sometimes, when in all reality things are simply as they are, you work with what you’ve got and that’s it. If the weather was really against us it could do much worse. The final day started with light winds and calm enough to fish, we were making good time and speed but could not see land with only 40 NM to go. It is a requirement to radio ahead to let them know you are coming, so I stopped Kuhela and jumped on the radio quickly and just before getting started again notice the fishing line running under the boat, and around the prop. DAMN, remember what I said about the cold. Tried to talk the crew into getting in the water but they come back with the “ but you’re the commercial diver” line. It was a refreshing swim to say the least, and not even a fish to show as a reward either.
Finally there was a speck on the horizon and this steadily grew larger and greener, New Zealand, land ho. The final few hours sail in was some of the best we’d had all trip, 15-18 knots from the west and now it was as if Kuhela had seen the prize and was sprinting home, sitting on 6-7 knots and loving it. Its Hard for me to describe the feelings I had sailing in. there were just so many, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Each feeling would take turns to well up to the top of the pile to sit with me for a moment or two before giving up to the next. To start with, the landscape was breathtaking, the late afternoon sun set everything aglow and the ocean breeze and mist gave it a soft and dreamlike feel. I had arrived; I had dreamed something into reality. It suddenly made the whole timeframe of the trip feel short, but also brought back so many memories. Some of my own doubting myself as to if I could even pull this off when some new challenge would arise, yet here I was. Some of the magical times I had had along the way, some of the people I had met, the places I had been. Here we were, Kuhela and I, and Adam and Kim as well. I had sailed ten thousand miles across the oceans, and had brought my boat and crew home safely and had an amazing adventure along the way. All these thoughts and feelings moved and rose within me and to top it all off I knew that waiting for me on the jetty a few miles ahead was mom and dad. The fact that they had come over from Australia to be here when I sailed in was one of the most amazing gifts I could have asked for, and the best way I could ever imagine to complete this journey. All I wanted to do now was to get there to see them, and though it would be dark by the time I got to them, they would be there.
I followed the lights in and suddenly there up on the jetty were two very familiar figures and a shout to us welcoming us, as mom and dad stood next to a big sign celebrating out arrival. It was kind of a shock and so dreamlike that I didn’t really know what to do to be honest, as we had gotten in late we could not come ashore as I still had to clear customs the following morning, so all we could do was have a quick chat to them up on the jetty above us before moving over to the quarantine dock to await customs in the morning. Its such a strange feeling when things suddenly stop moving, the boat is still, there is no creaking or noise, your senses feel empty, straining to find the unceasing stimulus of the past weeks. It feels strange and amazingly peaceful. The next morning we awoke and tidied Kuhela and did all the paperwork and official business that lets us into the country and moved over to our berth in the marina where Dad and Mom were waiting to welcome us in. I tied up Kuhela, stepped off and gave dad and then mom and huge hug. That felt was an amazing feeling.
For all my life I have had very different interests from the rest of the family and so over the years I have very often done things on my own, and its hard to explain things to the family, to fully share an experience when they themselves have no real experience in the area your talking about. Especially with this trip where I was so far away and sailing on a boat they had even never seen or knew what it felt like to sail, there simply existed in two totally different worlds. There was one world when I was home with the family and there was another when I was out on Kuhela, but to have mom and dad there, and have them step aboard, and see my boat and feel what it was like, suddenly those two worlds joined and for the first time in my life I had my family in my other world, they were part of it. It was an amazing thing for me, and for them. They had also rented an amazing little house on the hill overlooking the water and after getting Kuhela put away we headed out for a coffee and up to the house to relax. Again, such a change of pace from going from sailing to being in a house where hot water falls from the sky in the bathroom, clothes come out of the washing machine clean after you simpy push a button, the ground doesn’t roll, and your not too worried about how well your anchor is set. I booked Kuhela into the marina for the week would visit her during the mornings sometimes to do little jobs, but moistly I just wanted to spend the time chatting, drinking tea and spending time with family. There is no better way I could imagine than to come home to that.
A few days later Dad, Mom, Adam and I all headed out for a sail. There are so many little islands and bays here to explore and to have a day out on the water with my parents was a treat. There actually was a fair bit more wind than forecast but mom and dad handled it really well and we anchored up in a little bay for lunch and a few drinks, while I showed them where I had been and my positions plotted out on the charts and shared stories and caught up on the past year since I’d been away. The week past too quickly and suddenly we were packing bags and it was time to go again, only this time it was them leaving. Adam got the opportunity to jump on another boat with some friends for the trip down to Auckland, and so suddenly it was just back to Kuhela and I. Things seemed quieter on board, there was a lot more room and there was time to sit and think and reflect, It felt good to just be the two of us again. As thoughts drifted between memories of the trip and thinking about the next step I got Kuhela all scrubbed up and got onto the many small jobs that were on the list. I am not sure what the future holds for us here, but I do know that it feels good to be here, and that whatever will come I have so many lesson and learning from this trip to draw on and help me through. I am excited by what will come, I am proud of what I have accomplished and I am so amazingly stoked that I had the chance to share it with so many amazing people. Thanks so much to all those who read my blogs and commented as well, it helped me more than you will ever know. The adventure is far from over, and ill keep writing and documenting where life leads me. What lies in the next chapter? That’s something not even I know yet.