The Coastal Classic: Auckland to Russell

November 08, 2002
The Coastal Classic

  The start of the race in Auckland.

2000-odd sailors, 228 yachts, 120 miles of New Zealand coastline, a 3-day weekend and one big party. This is the annual NZ Multihull Yacht Club’s Coastal Classic race from Auckland to the town of Russell in the beautiful Bay of Islands.

We entered last year, but flagged the race due to weather conditions. We race for fun, and 45 knots on the nose for two days didn’t sound like much fun. It couldn’t possibly happen two years in a row, could it??

Conditions were looking much the same for this year’s race, but the weather gods hit the “fast forward” button and the front that was supposed to approach the North Island, giving us 35 knot northerlies (the course is north-northwest), passed us on Friday morning, 24 hours ahead of the original forecast. The race committee wisely postponed the race for two hours to let the front pass with its driving rain and 40+ knot winds. Within an hour, the wind eased to the 20-knot range and backed to the west, just as predicted by New Zealand Met Service’s “Weather Ambassador” Bob McDavitt. We were left with perfect conditions for the Coastal Classic!

Yachtie friends Barbara, Kevin and Andy joined us for the race. After the two-hour postponement, we were off with the cruising/non-spinnaker division at 1220 hours. Starting off Devonport Wharf, across the Waitemata Harbour from Auckland City, we had a short downwind run before rounding North Head and turning our bow North towards the Bay of Islands.

With 20 to 25 knots of breeze just forward of our beam, we were moving along quite nicely in the 9-11 knot range, continually passing the earlier starting boats with shorter waterlines. By the time we reached the Whangaparoa Peninsula, we had a horizon full of white sails astern, and just a few ahead.

By mid afternoon, we had handily passed all the boats in the cruising division excepting the recently launched 50-foot Elliott design Ubique. We had pulled her back to within a few boat lengths by the time we were between Sail Rock and the Hen and Chicks Islands, and then the wind went forward and dropped to less than 10 knots. Bugger!

Ubique got away from us as we sailed through the night in very light and shifty winds. On a cold but beautiful moonlit night, we made slow progress, averaging just 3-4 knots, while the green and red masthead lights of lightweight racing yachts quietly crawled past us to port and starboard. Barb kept the crew warm with cups of hot tea and coffee and we all managed to get a few catnaps while we sailed the long straight leg from Sail Rock to Cape Brett.

We reached Cape Brett, the southern promontory of the Bay of Islands at about 0400 hours. We decided to take a flyer and sail in between the Cape and Piercy Island. This “shortcut” could potentially mean getting ahead of dozens of boats who chose the longer outside route, or a risk of getting becalmed and having to start the engine to avoid hitting the rocks. Piercy Island, which juts out of the water just east of Cape Brett, is quite unique with its arches and caves, the largest, called “the Hole in the Rock,” is big enough to sail through with a small yacht.

We alternated between becalmed with flogging sails to “bullets” of wind gusting to 20+ knots as we tacked our way through the turbulent channel, which in the darkness appeared to be just a few boat lengths wide. Three other boats navigating in the area with similar thinking made for some tight quarters maneuvering as we crossed tacks on port and starboard.

We got through OK, getting ahead of quite a few boats, hit the left blinker and turned into the Bay of Islands, then began tacking our way toward Russell to the Southwest. Protected from the open ocean, the waters became flat as a millpond.

Picking our way through the rocks, shoals and islands of the Bay became easier as the sun crept up on the Eastern horizon. We crossed the finish line off the little town of Russell on a beautiful, crisp morning, just past 0700, for an elapsed time en route of about 18 hours and 40 minutes.

After furling the sails and setting the hook, it was time for a nap!

  Mansion House Bay at Kawau Island.

As is the custom after the race, all the participants gather at the Duke of Marlborough Tavern in Russell on Saturday evening for the prize giving ceremony and post-race party. With too many participants and well-wishers to fit inside, the tavern has to set up a marquis on their big back lawn, with extra bars and a stage for the live band. This is easily Russell’s biggest party of the year, and they do it up right, with a live band cranking out some great dance music.

Moonshadow finished the Coastal Classic third on line and fifth on handicap, so we weren’t getting any prizes, but the crew enjoyed a fun evening of socializing and dancing with our yachtie friends.

On Sunday, one by one, the groggy fleet quietly hoisted up their anchors and began the journey back home to their home ports.

We elected to make a bit of a cruise out of the return trip, so stopped and spent one night in Tutukaka, a quaint little harbor about 60 miles down the coast, and the second night at Kawau Island, about 25 miles north of Auckland. At Kawau we anchored in the snug little Mansion House Bay, near the stately old mansion of New Zealand’s first Governor General. Barb, our “snacktician” organized some fantastic meals for the trip, insuring the crew would not experience any calorie deficits during the grueling journey.

Sailing the last leg back to Auckland on Tuesday, we skirted the two Louis Vuitton Cup courses and watched four pairs of Cup boats dueling, and two Team New Zealand yachts tuning up on the Hauraki Gulf. All in all, not a bad way to spend a long weekend.

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