Landfall in New Zealand

Monday afternoon offered up some beautiful downwind sailing and some fresh fish for the galley. With twenty knots from the north-northwest, and a gentle swell, Moonshadow was eating up miles like a thoroughbred headed for the barn. Downwind sailing at 8-9 knots, however, is not exactly conducive to reeling in large pelagic fish, but we did manage to land a rather small, but fierce fighting mahi-mahi, which made for a nice “fish of the day” for dinner.

The sailing was comfortable and non-eventful as we gybed our way towards our landfall at Cape Brett off New Zealand’s beautiful Bay of Islands. With a deepening low-pressure system moving across our path, we abandoned plans to sail to Auckland and instead diverted to the Opua in the Bay of Islands. The thought of a sundowner in a calm marina, dinner out on shore was a bit more appealing than spending a night sailing down a rugged, unforgiving coastline in gale force winds pressing us onto a lee shore.

Sailing can be a lot like flying: hours and hours of boredom punctuated by a few moments of sheer terror. With about fifty miles to go to our landfall, things started to get interesting.

First, the barometer started an ear-popping freefall. The winds started picking up and becoming quite shifty. Then at one point in the middle of the morning, the winds dropped right off to about 7 knots.

We started the engine to motor sail, but immediately discovered that it was not getting cooling water. I assumed it was a cooling water pump impeller gone bad, so started wrenching. Sure enough, the impeller had lost bits of three blades. Graham and I were able to retrieve all the pieces, insuring that they wouldn’t block the cooling system, and installed a new impeller. Within an hour, we were ready to run, but by then the wind had picked up to thirty knots, so there was no need.

We began being overtaken by large squalls, which dumped buckets of rain and shot “bullet” gusts of more than 45 knots. We quickly furled the headsail and tucked a reef in the main. Sailing was quite comfortable, considering the winds and seas and Moonshadow was heading towards the coast with a bone in her teeth. We were still averaging speeds of better than ten knots and had numerous surf speeds exceeding 15 knots, with just a reefed mainsail.

The North Island was quickly getting bigger on the radar screen, and visibility was deteriorating. The shifting winds made it impossible to hold our course line and we made landfall at the Cavalli Islands, about ten miles north of our intended waypoint. From five miles off, these ominous rocks looked very nasty in the driving rain, churning seas and dark, overcast sky. We gybed as the wind calmed to 30 knots and layed a course for Ninepin Island at the northern end of the opening to the Bay of Islands. We covered the ten miles in less than an hour as the wind continued to blow a gale and the driving rain power-washed off the five-day accumulation of salt from Moonshadow’s decks, sails and rigging.

The visibility continued to vary between five miles and less than a mile. We got a positive identification of Ninepin Rock and got a good radar image of the Bay of Islands. Then we lost all sight of land again. The electronic charting of the area was spot-on, so we gybed again and were steering a course directly towards Russell, the small town considered the birthplace of New Zealand. No sooner had I set the new course, than the sky opened up revealing a crisp clear New Zealand afternoon with a fresh northerly breeze to take is the remaining ten miles to the small town of Opua, our port of entry. All knuckles on board returned to tan color and we enjoyed the hour’s sail through the beautiful bay.

When we arrived at Opua marina, the harbormaster, New Zealand Customs and Immigration and the Quarantine officer were on the dock to catch our lines. As usual, the officials were courteous, professional, friendly and thorough. Within an hour, we were checked-in, and our ship was lightened by Quarantine, who relieved us of prohibited goodies like fruits and veggies, honey, meat and other items that might carry pests dangerous to the small island nation.

The first person we ran into on shore was Brian Hepburn of the Island Cruising Association. He and wife Joan, who had just moved up to the Bay of Islands, joined us for a long-awaited sundowner and dinner out.

We’re off to Auckland as soon as the weather moderates.

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