"Arctracer" Letters

Nelson to Tauranga, New Zealand, March-May 2000

Leaving Nelson, we sailed and then motored in light wind up the east side of Tasman Bay to the passage below D'Urville Island. This is named for the French explorer who made several long voyages a bit later than Cook. He looked for several days at the tide-driven current which whips through the narrowest part of this passage, and then decided to take his ship through. The wind stopped at the wrong time, and his ship was put on the rocks, but they got off quickly with little damage. For the rest of the sailing ship era sailors avoided this place, preferring to sail 15 extra miles around the island. The place is still called "French Pass" and treated with great respect even by boats with good engines. We arrived there very close to slack high water and had no trouble, but we still found standing waves like the rapids of a river. It must be terrible at peak current. The week after our transit a group of experienced scuba divers doing an "advanced course" were towed through French Pass on a weighted line when the current was strong. Their line got separated from the boat and they were dragged down. Several had to be treated for the bends, and two died. New Zealanders were shocked, and may put restrictions on such activities.

The Sounds are essentially drowned rivers, so they are fairly narrow and sheltered, winding for miles with numerous bays and good anchorages around every corner. It isn't a good place for sailing, since the winds are usually shifty and flukey, but we had an enjoyable time exploring, mostly under power. Not many people live along these waterways, but it is a prime holiday destination for New Zealand boaters. We spent a couple of quiet weeks in Pelorus Sound at several nice anchorages. There are an increasing number of vacation homes along the shores, much of the surrounding hills are dedicated to tree farms, and mussel farms are very common, but there is still some sense of remoteness and peace. We did couple of walks through the bush, on beautiful trails which don't see hikers every day. There are still some relatively untouched areas, and we liked those best. The weather was mostly fine, but the nights were chilly enough to require multiple quilts. The Sounds are well-protected from the gales of nearby Cook Strait. It was quite relaxing. We even started doing some varnishing, but didn't work too hard. We went to Havelock, a very small town tucked deep inside Pelorus Sound. There is a marina there, but they see very few foreign boats. Our flag has caused many locals to remark that we are a long way from home. Havelock bills itself as "the greenshell mussel capital of the world", and they export about 50,000 tons of mussels per year. We picked wild mussels off the rocks for a few feeds at different anchorages, but had to try the farmed mussels in the "Mussel Boys Restaurant." They tasted the same. Nina was delighted to discover that she seems to be over her allergy to mussels, and she ate even more of them than me. We caught a few fish too, and the best eating were a couple of small Barracouta, not the same as the Great Barracuda but close.

We sailed around the corner from Pelorus Sound to Queen Charlotte Sound on a very pleasant day. The wind was very reasonable, and we were able to sail around Cape Jackson and against a slight current into the outer part of QC Sound. Cape Jackson can have strong currents and winds, so we had to wait for fair winds to go around it. We did not sail through the tricky inside passage where the Russian cruise ship "Lermatov" came to grief a few years ago. That looked hazardous even for a small boat, and we cannot imagine what possessed that big ship to try that route. Further in, the wind failed, so we had to motor. That seems to be one of the problems of these Sounds - it's not very often that the winds are right for sailing. We anchored where Captain Cook did in Endeavour Inlet, and spent a couple of windy nights there. Then we tried a few other anchorages, and found the strong winds of Cook Strait were reduced considerably but still gusted even into the protected spots. When we pulled up our anchor and started motoring towards Picton, we saw an unusual ship heading in the same direction. We recognized it immediately as the replica of the "Endeavour" which has been around the world since its last visit here. We thought it pretty amazing to come into Picton on the same day as "Endeavour" without even knowing it was in the area.

Of course we took photos and even got one as they fired their cannon. When they opened the ship for visitors the next day we paid our $15 each and took the tour. This helps furnish the funds to keep the ship operating. It costs $9700 (NZ) per day to run the ship, which is even more than "Arctracer" requires. It has 18 full-time crew members, and takes about 40 more paying crew on each leg of its travels. If that sounds like too many people for a ship only 109 feet long, imagine how it was with Cook's 93 men. Now they have an engine, electricity, an electric windlass, a modern galley, refrigerator, radios, etc. but that stuff is all hidden (mostly down on the bottom deck where we couldn't go), and the rest of the ship is like a museum. In port they bring out lots of props to show how Cook's men lived, and it is very informative. It still is sailed just the way Cook sailed, so taking a trip aboard must be quite an experience. The crew has to stand watches, sleep in hammocks, work all that maze of running rigging, get up on the yards to raise and lower sails, and steer with a clumsy wheel that requires two people in the best of conditions. They are supported by many volunteers who act as guides in port and help raise money. We enjoyed seeing it, but were happy we only have to sail "Arctracer." Our problems are small compared to theirs.

Picton is the only important town on Queen Charlotte Sound, and has the ferry terminal for connections to Wellington across Cook Strait. We went there twice for water, good hot showers, supermarket shopping and some restaurant food.

We made a quick trip to Christchurch to visit some cruisers we met in Tonga. We went down by train on Saturday afternoon, went to dinner with them, stayed overnight on their boat, and took the bus back Sunday afternoon. It was a good visit with our friends. It was also pleasant to see the Marlborough wine country, and the Canterbury Plains sheep country, and the rocky coast of Kaikoura. We traveled that way by car last year, but this time somebody else drove so it was more relaxing.

The transportation to and from Christchurch reminded us of the inland touring that we did last year in the $500 (US) car that we bought at an auction. On the train and bus rides we once again saw windmills, smoke from wood fires coming from the houses, people gathering wood, pine tree farms in various stages of growth, the place where they grow all the garlic on the South Island, fields and fields of pumpkins, lots of trucks that transport livestock, salt pans where they harvest 90,000 tons of salt every February/March, salt piles, rugged coastline with lots of large waves over shallow water breaking against rocks with lots of kelp, black sand beaches, lots of surfers in wet suits and some near a fire on the beach trying to warm up, and many, many vineyards. We also saw dark brown llamas, deer and elk fenced in fields, lots of cows and some lined up in the late afternoon to be milked, many sheep - small ones with curly horns, white-faced ones, dark brown ones, ones with black legs and faces, greyish ones, long tailed ones and many horses (several with coats on). We see lots of information about horse racing here so imagine some of them were race horses. We also saw quite a few rabbits, seals on the rocks along the coastline, many beehives (there's lots of honey here), MANY hawks (Australasian harriers), magpies, black swans in a breeding place of theirs, many pairs of Paradise ducks and a river that is great for white baiting (small fish that they put in a pancake batter or egg batter when they are in season) and salmon fishing. A local in Tauranga gave us some whitebait that she caught in a net on Christmas day. They were okay, but quite fishy tasting.

The high mountains of the Seaward Kaikoura range had snow on top, which is unusual so early in the year, but affirmed what everybody has been saying - it has been a chilly summer. We'll refuel, restock, and do a few repairs here in Picton, then head up the East side of the North Island, towards warmer climes (we hope). We've been wearing our wool sweaters and sleeping under two quilts and a wool blanket here in the Sounds!

One night we got our dinner at a fish shop. For the first time we saw paua (abalone) on the menu, so tried it. It was okay, but not great. If we see it on another menu we'll have to try it again. We had hoped to find some here in the sounds. We learned that they live on the rocks where kelp grows and are the same pinkish color as the rocks in such places. We haven't seen the right place to get them yet, but have some recipes from the locals to try if we do find some. There are many paua shells in the tourist shops in New Zealand. They polish the shells and either sell them as is, or make jewelry items out of them. The shell is very pretty.

Another boat of cruising friends just returned to Picton from their trip to Tonga, and we spent several days with them. We also spent a good bit of time reading, taking hikes, and also varnishing and doing other maintenance jobs. Most anchorages were quiet, except for bellbirds in the day and moreporks (the native owls) at night. We might have stayed longer, but that is 41 degrees south latitude and winter is approaching.

(view photos of Marlborough Sounds)

We finally left Queen Charlotte Sound on April 27. We didn't take the shortest route through Tory Channel because that is the route of the ferries between Wellington and Picton. That channel is not overly wide, has strong currents, and the fast ferries can travel at up to 48 (forty-eight!) knots. It's awesome to see one of those big catamarans roaring along, and we didn't want to go anywhere near them. The slight extra distance we had to travel gave us much peace of mind. Cook Strait has a well-deserved reputation for difficult passages. The wind almost always blows hard through there, and often switches from a southerly gale one day to a northerly gale the next, and vice versa. We almost headed out one afternoon when the forecast suddenly changed from 15 to 40 knots, so we turned back to a sheltered mooring. The next day the forecast was 15 knots in the right direction, going up to 20 for a short time in the afternoon, so we charged ahead. The wind built up to about 25 knots, so we really should have reefed, but I kept thinking the wind would die down so I kept zooming down the swells. We really went too fast, with the current helping us hit over 9 knots on the GPS fairly regularly. We finally reefed at dark, nearly in front of the Wellington harbor entrance, and after that it was an easy sail. The wind stayed very quiet for us for the next week, and we used our topsails almost all the time. There were a few periods of complete calm when we used our engine. Normally we don't do that on a long passage, but we thought it prudent to make progress as fast as possible along this coast which has lots of shipping traffic and can develop strong winds very quickly. We really enjoyed watching albatrosses! There were some around most of the time, and we never tired of watching them. We sailed very near White Island, the most active volcanic island of New Zealand. It has some abandoned buildings from a sulfur mining operation, but is too active to have permanent residents. The eruptions were mostly steam, but there was enough ash coming out to give our decks a black coating. Entrance into Tauranga was easy on the tail of a morning flood tide, and we had no problems getting into a berth at the Bridge Marina. It was a 575 mile trip which took nearly 8 days, slow for "Arctracer," but comfortable and without any problems.

Now we're socializing with our friends, some on boats in the marina and some living ashore, and trying to take care of all the preparations for cruising back up to the islands. One of our priorities is getting visas for Australia, where we hope to visit on and off for the next few years. They require a visa be obtained before arrival, and by applying here we hope to get a multiple-year, multiple- entry visa which will ease our hassles with the authorities. We won't take the boat out for repainting the bottom now, because it seems to be holding up well without too many barnacles. We do need to fill up with food and other stuff which will be expensive or impossible to buy in Fiji or New Caledonia. I got another new Tilley hat, a replacement per their guarantee, which makes it four hats now for just the original purchase price plus the costs of mailing worn-out hats back to them. We had a mechanic take a look at our engine, and he said it was in good shape. The weather has been poor since we arrived, and today we have more rain and strong winds. Several other boats are ready to leave, but they are staying until the weather improves. You can see the weather maps on the web, and in a week or so you may see a nice patch of weather over this area and guess that we're using it to sail up to the tropics.