"Arctracer" Letters

Aitutaki to New Zealand, Nov 1998

We arrived in Tauranga, New Zealand almost a week ago. We are at a marina, in the process of buying a car, taking hot showers, meeting lots of friendly New Zealanders, and getting rested from our three weeks at sea.

This letter concentrates on our last day or two in Aitutaki, Cook Islands and our adventure in sailing here. The day before we left Aitutaki, our friend Paa visited the boat from 10am until 3pm. She showed me how they make porridge from arrowroot flour and how to make banana poke (pudding). That night John, her husband, gave us a huge goatfish for dinner when he came in from fishing. On this day we also bought cheese, eggs, cabbage, and carrots for the trip. We already had quite a few potatoes and onions. I also bought a tape of drumming by Cook Islanders since they gave us a traditional drum. While Jerry prepared "Arctracer" for our 2000 mile voyage to New Zealand I was learning a lot about Paa's life on Aitutaki. We learned that it was a foreign idea to John and Paa that in Auckland you can't go to your yard (plantation) to get your food. They also raise pigs and hens. The hens can be called by whistling, banging, etc., and each group knows their particular family's call. Aitutakians have lots of relatives in New Zealand and Australia, because many leave Aitutaki for jobs in the more industrialized countries.

We left Aitutaki after about 2 weeks on a full moon high tide with John on board and towing his outrigger. We made it out the pass without kedging thanks to John's navigating and the highest tide of the month. On board we had 6 drinking coconuts, limes, a stalk of bananas, and a breadfruit from a man named Jack; a dozen mangoes from my pandanus weaver friend Taeia; and 4 pineapples, another stalk of bananas, lots of arrowroot powder (tapioca) and a fish from John and Paa. Early in the morning on the day we left we were greeted with white- flower eis (like Hawaiian leis) and white-flower headpieces made by the 9 and 11-year-olds Helen and Violet (daughters of John and Paa). Since the girls were in school, Paa presented them, and we wore those beautiful, fragrant eis as we sailed away.

(view photos of Aitutaki)

Notes on our passage

08 November We saw a double green flash - our first. We were up on the bow of the boat as the sun was setting. As the bow dipped into a trough as we saw the first green flash, then the bow rose on a wave, the sun came into view again and we saw it a second time. We thought this was quite unusual. 11 November We left the tropics when we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn at 23deg27'S. At this time I realized that our signs are Cancer and Capricorn - perhaps we are opposites? 16 November We crossed the 180th meridian (International Date Line in most places). We are now in East longitude instead of West longitude for the first time on "Arctracer." We are one day ahead of the U.S. now as we lost a day. We chose to skip Friday the 13th. Two sailboats passed us during a windless hour, as they were motoring and we were just waiting for the wind to return. 17 November Two more sailboats passed us while we were reefing sails. 19 November We crossed 30deg S latitude, which is about as far south as Jacksonville, FL, is north. 20 November We crossed 32deg S - the latitude of Savannah, GA 22 November We crossed 33deg S - the latitude of Charleston, SC 24 November We crossed 37deg S - the latitude of Norfolk, VA in the northern hemisphere. 25 November We arrived in Tauranga Harbor at about 37deg40'S - similar latitude to Richmond, VA.

From Aitutaki to near Tonga we did lots of reading in the trade winds. We also were able to read when we hove to waiting for weather to the south to get better. I prepared a hot meal every day; we got lots of sleep, saw lots of shooting stars and satellites.

Slight Problems

We had rips in our squaresail several times. After trying to use sail-mending tape, we finally had to stitch the tape. The squaresail has a huge big black cross in the middle and this is where the seams separated. Much of this was due to chafe on the stay. One night just before dark the square sail got backed in very light winds and we spent quite a bit of time getting back on track. Another day the square sail and its boom fell to the deck. The stainless ring had broken off because of metal fatigue and corrosion. The halyard ended up at the top of the mast, but Jerry was able to retrieve it without using the bosun's chair by using the gaff tied to a flag halyard.

On November 11th our light air jib got underwater, the boat ran over it, it caught on the bobstay and got two large rips. We think it is no longer usable, so we'll be talking to our sailmaker here to see if he can make us a new one after he makes a new roller-furling jib to replace the one that got ripped out on our way up the Tuamotus. After it ripped we had to use our hank-on jib. It isn't quite as large, and is more difficult to set and take down, but it served us well.

On the 17th our gollywobbler (big light air sail) ripped a little when it caught on the pinrail, then really dipped in the ocean and ripped up the lower panel. Now we need to see if that can be repaired or if we need a new one. This was my fault as Jerry was sleeping and I didn't want to bother him. The wind had picked up and I shouldn't have had a light air sail up at the time. We sure were moving fast, but we were under control and I was really enjoying myself. As we were bringing it in one of its halyards went up in the air when a snaphook broke. Jerry retrieved it, again without using the bosun's chair. At least our gaff (made for hauling fish aboard) was useful for something on the trip, even if it wasn't used to pull in dinner.

On the 23rd we noticed two small rips in seams in our mainsail. Chafing on the shrouds was the cause, and we'll have to spend a bit of time here restitching those seams.

On the 12th we hove to for a thunder/lightning storm and fairly large seas. We don't like to be out in the cockpit when there is lightning nearby.

The faucet for salt-water in the galley sink fell off in my hand when I rotated it one day. After that I had to wash all our dishes in fresh water, and we had to shut off the seacock for our saltwater intake when we were heeled to port to prevent water dribbling in through the broken faucet. We still used the salt water to flush the toilet, but had to turn on the seacock each time.

On the 14th one of our stanchions got REALLY bent when we were hove to in strong winds waiting for weather to change further south. A sea hit our splash cloths (we don't learn quickly as the same thing happened on our way to Bermuda and we just had new stanchions welded on in Panama) and it caused the stanchion to bend. Then we removed our splashcloths. No welding required in this case, just need to bend it back. The 15th we also hove to with some forward motion to wait for the lows and highs further south to move out of our way. They were producing winds from 30 to 55 knots and we didn't want to sail into that area until those wind speeds went down.

On the 17th our tricolor light wouldn't stay on all the time, but kept blinking off. Its wiring isn't good and we knew it needed replacement but had decided to do that job in New Zealand. The light did stay on long enough each time for other vessels to see us, but it wasn't the most comforting situation. Also on the 17th Jerry removed the stove in rolling seas. The propane system control unit is no longer working properly. When we try to turn the gas on at the panel, the alarm goes off as if it had detected a propane leak. Presently we can't turn off our solenoid (the extra safety shutoff valve outside beside the propane tanks), but we can still use the stove. We will put a new switch in the galley for the solenoid. The old system still seems capable of detecting propane leaks and sounding the alarm.

On the 18th we had to motor to charge our batteries. There hadn't been enough sun for our solar panel and we needed a little electricity to listen to our radio for weather forecasts, use our compass light and our tricolor masthead light.

On the 20th we went through a short-lived cold front, but while reducing sail (reefing) we didn't detach the preventer on the main boom and the mainsail tried to jibe, but the preventer caught on a (different) stanchion. We now have two bent stanchions.

On the 21st we hove to again to wait for a low to pass south of us - again to avoid 40 knots of wind. Jerry worked on deck all day securing things and took the opportunity to practice putting up our storm trysail and storm jib. Fifty knots of wind were forecast and we weren't sure how close to them we would come. We never did get any strong winds, and started to feel silly bobbing around with very small sails in very little wind.

We lost all but one of our good tuna/mahi mahi lures. The fish were all apparently too large for our 50-pound test line. We got several bruises and black and blue marks - all part of ocean voyaging.


On this trip we started paying attention to our barometer for the first time. I learned from Bowditch's book about converting from inches (our barometer's readings) to millibars (used by most sailors and the weather forecasters). I learned: Normal is 29.91 inches or 1013 Mb. Average high-pressure system is 30.20 inches or 1023 Mb. Average low-pressure system is 29.60 inches or 1002 Mb. On the 15th we had 30.52 inches or 1034 Mb (the highest we encountered). On the 22nd we had 29.30 inches or 992 Mb (the lowest we encountered).

On November 9th we got out our heaviest wool sweaters. On the 18th we had out our long underwear and wool socks and used our two quilts at night. We never did get out our wool hats and wool mittens like we did on our trip past Bermuda a year ago, so it must be warmer here?!?

We wore boots to keep our feet warm and to have better traction on deck. Our paint job with sand in the paint wasn't as good as it could have been. Next time I paint the decks I plan to put much more sand in the top coat of paint. Since we've been in New Zealand a storm went through and we added a wool blanket to the two quilts. We are wondering if we will need to buy a small diesel heater here, but I imagine we've been through the worst weather. Summer will be here on December 21st.

On two days while we were listening to Russell Radio to Dez, the radio weather- router, we heard our old friend Herb on Southbound II out of Ontario. The morning forecast here coincided with Herb's afternoon report to boats going to the Caribbean and the Azores, and radio propagation was exceptionally good on those days.

Problems for other boats much more major than ours:

We heard the following news through Dez on Russell Radio during the last part of our trip.

14 November sailboat 'Never Monday' on a sea anchor in 30-40 knot winds with gusts to 55 knots. Their steering broke and they lost their dinghy when a big wave washed over them, but they got to NZ okay a few days later.

15 November sailboat 'Energetic' had a broken mast. By the 19th the winds were still strong and they were tired and scared, so Dez put them in touch with Taupo radio. They talked with Taupo radio every hour and a half through the night while the winds were 55 miles/hour and the seas were huge. By the 22nd the winds were fine, they had a jury rig up, and they felt confident that they could sail to Lord Howe Island.

16 November sailboat 'Woody Goose' went ashore in strong currents on a remote coast of New Zealand. The wife was never found. We later heard that these people weren't very good navigators and decided to both go to sleep when approaching a lee shore. We would never both go to sleep at the same time!

19 November sailboat 'Antares' from England blew out their genoa sail in 45- knot gusts. We met them in Trinidad 2 years ago and became good friends. They will be in Australia for the next few months.

20 November sailboat 'Jenna Marie' with 4 people on board lost their mast and damaged their boat. At the time we heard about this a warship and a helicopter were sent to them (they had deployed their EPIRB) and they were waiting until daylight to take them off the ship. [Since being in New Zealand we've heard of a boat with 4 people aboard that got into trouble, the lifeline broke and two people were swept overboard and never found. We are wondering if it was this same boat or a different one.] We didn't hear the end of this story.

22 November sailboat 'Excaliber' (about 120 miles from us) had a knockdown and had a lot of damage. They lost their dodgers, solar panels and other things that had been stored on deck. For the landlubbers amongst us, a knockdown is when the masts hit the water or almost hit the water, perhaps caused by sudden strong gusts of wind or very large waves. These people also got a lot of water below decks so had an absolute mess to clean up. The wind was blowing 35 to 40 knots at the time of their knockdown and they were in an area where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific. Huge waves were generated because of a quite shallow ocean floor (700 fathoms) coming up against a very deep ocean floor (2,000 fathoms), strong currents and strange tides in this area. They were at about 174deg E latitude, while we were at 176deg E latitude.

28 November sailboat 'Freya' from the U.S. with parents and a 13 year old were rescued at sea by helicopter after their boat rolled over 3 times, the mast broke, the hatch cover came off, and they were sheltering inside their boat with water up to their knees. The boat sank later. This all happened after our arrival in NZ. This most recent storm formed in the tropics. These people were also in the area where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet. A low was moving through with a high just below it creating winds of over 70 knots. I still can't believe that they sailed into this. We would have sailed north away from it, even if it took more days to get to New Zealand. These people were within 90 miles of Opua, their destination, on the North Coast, and probably hoped they could arrive before it got bad. Most boats near them either anchored in protected areas or waited north of the low.

28 November sailboat 'Salacia,' a US registered boat, 20 miles from their destination of Opua, put out a distress call. The authorities directed a huge container ship to their position. The ship put out two life rings, one for each person on the boat, but only the man made it aboard the ship. When they pulled the woman's life ring aboard she was not with it. They never did find her. Some people felt that the sailors on this particular boat had made it through the worst of the storm and should have been able to cope. We did hear that the woman was very panicky and had slight hypothermia. The sailboat was badly damaged by collision with the ship, and soon sank.

Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned all of this, but I feel very lucky that Jerry understands the weather systems down here and makes decisions accordingly. Also, we have a well-found boat and we aren't so sure that the boats listed above were as seaworthy. We also aren't sure if the crews of the sailboats had the experience to sail them into weather such as they sometimes get between here and Tonga. Many of the sailors have only sailed in the trade winds and haven't had experience with strong winds. We learned a lot about "Arctracer" on our way past Bermuda last year. We have also sailed her in reinforced trades of up to 40 knots. The New Zealanders here in Tauranga agree with us that it is easier to pick a weather window to leave New Zealand to go north than it is to pick a weather window to come south. Of course a good radio is very valuable to get the news of approaching lows and highs in time to avoid problems. Hundreds of boats sail to NZ during November and December, and most of them, like us, had no big problems even in this strange year.

I personally think it is too bad that New Zealand no longer does safety checks of foreign boats before they leave New Zealand. They just stopped these inspections, but we knew their expectations and thought the New Zealanders' requirements made good sense. For instance, we think an extra bilge pump is a good idea, the 406mhz Epirb (although expensive) is an excellent idea, and that a life raft is a good idea. One of their requirements was 4 pails. I'm not exactly sure why if there are only 2 people on board, but....

Sea Life:

On the 4th and 5th of November we found lots of tiny flying fish on our decks in the morning. They were up to two inches long and wouldn't have been a very hearty breakfast. We saw porpoises on the 11th, 20th, and 25th. We saw all three kinds of Tropicbird on our voyage. One day we saw all three kinds and we saw them independently on other days. On the 20th while we were reefing sails we had a huge flock of brown birds (when we looked them up in our "Field Guide to Seabirds of the World" we decided they were Parkinson's Petrels) land on the water near the boat. At this time we also saw our first albatross and had porpoises come around. No doubt there was good feeding around the area! We saw albatrosses every day from the 20th of November on. The ones that got close enough for us to identify were white-capped albatrosses. As we approached Tauranga we saw several Australasian Gannets. They are pretty birds and very graceful. We've even seen them flying around the marina. We saw many kinds of petrels at sea, but were unable to identify them. Here in the harbor we've also seen Pied Cormorants - very different than the cormorants along the East coast. These are black and white.

November 21st, 22nd, and 23rd we saw Portuguese men-of-war or Velella Velella (By the wind Sailor) floating on the sea. While the full-grown Portuguese man-of-war is 12 inches long, the By-the-wind Sailor is 4 inches long. They are both bluish. Our guidebook says that Velella Velella can tack in the manner of a sailboat. The tentacles of the Sailor are harmless to man, while those of the Portuguese man-of-war are highly toxic (one of the most powerful poisons known in marine animals).

On November 10th we had a real treat. I came out of the cabin with a cup of tea while Jerry was sleeping and saw some whales spouting. I woke him up as our bow approached them and was afraid that we would hit them. Jerry wasn't worried and said they knew we were there and they were awake, so not to worry. One of them dove out of sight, but the other one swam in front of the bow and let Arctracer come up beside it. It proved to be a humpback that was about 30 feet long. Its hump was out of the water and it was just below the surface. They are migrating back to the Antarctic this time of year. We thought we would see more, but it was nice to at least see one so closely.

Tauranga Arrival

We arrived at 6 PM Wednesday, November 25th New Zealand time (Tues. the 24th U.S.)

Just before we entered the harbor of Tauranga we called the Harbour Radio. They arranged for customs and agriculture officers to board Arctracer. We went alongside a fishing boat dock as the radio operator thought we were 51 meters long rather than 51 feet. There were 5 or 6 men at the dock who exclaimed that they were expecting something much larger. Clearing in with the friendly officials was easy. There were no fees at all, but they did take our last few Aitutaki limes and our last onion. We were able to stay at that dock for the night. We really were thankful for this as the tide is 2 meters and the current gets up to 4 and 1/2 knots, so it was good to be able to wait for daylight to move to the marina. Apparently there isn't much anchoring here. We are only paying about $5 U.S. per day to stay in the marina. The hot showers sure are a treat after a year of sun showers from our plastic bags. I'm glad that they don't allow laundry to be hung on the boats. I won't find myself trying to save a dollar or two by doing laundry in our buckets. It's the laundramat during our stay here.

We have been introduced to several New Zealanders. Most of them have said, "Oh, we saw you coming in." At first I didn't really get why so many people had seen us in such a large harbor, then I remembered that we sailed in during their one night of racing. Were there ever a lot of boats racing - all sizes. They were racing across the big ship channel too and we weren't sure what to do. A couple of the larger boats (up to 39 feet at least) had to tack for us. I felt terrible about that, but we were assured that the captains are used to tacking for the big ships and didn't really mind our presence.

We haven't seen any other American boats here. not many cruisers come here at all (one of the reasons we did decide to come here). Most boats go to Opua or Auckland, a little further north, where there are bumper-to- bumper cruisers from the U.S. and Europe. Here at the marina we have met people on a boat from Vancouver and people on two German boats. One of the German boats is "Ronin." We met them in Panama and Gerd helped us go through the Panama Canal. Then we saw them again in the Gambier Islands. I was shocked to see them here, but in a way I should have known they'd be thinking like us - don't go with the flow or with the crowds. We'll have much more opportunity to meet New Zealanders here. Several have visited the boat already. I went to the Salvation Army and bought a nice teapot to have aboard. It matches our white dishes and was cheap enough so that I can give it away when I leave if I decide not to try to transport it aboard the boat. I've been making scones to go with the tea. The creamed honey here is excellent! We've enjoyed lots of spring vegetables including asparagus and strawberries and we've had yellowfin tuna.

We have been to an Irish Pub with the German cruisers, and met lots of locals. Those Germans (in general) sure do like their beer! I slept until 2:30 PM the following day, so I don't think I'll be frequenting bars on a regular basis. I don't like to waste away the days. Muriel and Heinz on the boat from Vancouver (She is from Scotland and he is from Germany.) invited me to go to town yesterday. I learned the layout of the town and bought lots of groceries. It sure is nice to be in a place where we can have a large variety of fruits and vegetables.

We have been reading two newspapers every day. One is The Auckland Herald and one is the local Times. Both newspapers had many stories about mishaps on shore and near shore, along with the rescue and rescue attempt of the two sailboats. Even the big fishing boats came to our marina for the duration of the storm since it was an option for them and much more comfortable and safer. From what the locals say, this weather was quite unusual, and we should not see anything like it when we leave to go back north. Of course we are very well protected in this marina inside Tauranga harbor, so will have no worries for the next few months.

Mileage: Our GPS said that we sailed 2063 miles in 21 days, while we figured 2019 by adding up our noon to noon mileages. If we had sailed in a perfectly straight line from Aitutaki it would have been only 1700 miles, but we wanted to make some westing before we headed south out of the trade wind belt. We sailed under 100 miles on 12 days. Some of these days had light wind and some of them we spent almost hove to, going forward very slowly. One day we went 19 miles, an all time record low. I couldn't believe it! Then the next day we went negative 4 miles, almost hove to and having to go NW because of the big waves. We sailed over 100 miles on 9 days. Most of them were in the trade winds from Aitutaki to the Tonga area, running with our squaresail. Our best days were 151 and 152 miles in 24 hours from noon to noon.

I'm trying to talk Jerry into doing a circumnavigation of New Zealand. I think he'll do it, but I need to introduce him to a few other people who have done it. Al, at the marine shop, brought in some pictures of Stewart Island and fiordland from his trip and it looks beautiful. This year I think we'll see the South Island by car and perhaps next year take "Arctracer" down. We're in the process of looking for a very economical car. Apparently the way to get a used car here in Tauranga is to go to the Thursday car auction. We're hoping to have a car before Hilary arrives on the 15th. I think the Auckland International airport is less than an hour drive from the marina.