Getting Established in New Zealand

Posted by John

We plan to stay in New Zealand for the cyclone season, which is five or six months. Whether or not we keep the boat in Opua the whole time we don’t know yet. We planned for at least a month in the marina and a month in the boatyard for rudder repair and bottom paint, but we don’t know which boatyard yet, or exactly when. We may move the boat south to Whangerei where there are more boatyards to choose from, but that requires sailing back out in the ocean. Not high on our list right now, especially with the currently wet and stormy weather. They say the nice weather starts in January so we shouldn’t expect to get anything done between Christmas and February when businesses close for vacation.

When given a choice I tend to prefer shiny new things and the Bay of Islands Marina is as new as things come. The section we are in, H dock, just opened this year. They’re still putting in the lawns. Just about every boat service you’d want is located right here, including: sail maker; mechanic; canvas shop; ship chandleries; stainless fabrication; fiberglass repair; electrical workshop; cafes; general store; laundry; even an insurance agent where you can buy the $5 million NZ personal liability policy that the marina requires. And for those who are looking to unload their boat and fly back home, there’s a boat broker.

The cruiser’s lounge is second to none with Wi-Fi, television, cushy chairs, sofas and bean bag chairs (bean bag chairs, like from the 70’s!), a large conference room table convenient for spreading out, and even a separate “quiet” computer room.

During our customs check-in the biosecurity inspector confiscated our popcorn and a few other things, but otherwise went pretty easy on us. We were worried about the boat bottom and any invasive species we might’ve picked up since scraping the barnacles off in Tonga. We’d heard they sometimes stick a camera under the boat to see what’s there, but the officer just looked at the waterline and what he could see of the rudder and thought it looked good.

The only hiccup we had was getting from the customs dock to our slip. The wind and an unexpectedly strong tidal current made it difficult to bring the bow around and into the slip. Sometimes we really do envy the boats with bow thrusters. But soon a small crowd had gathered on the pier to shout encouragement and take our lines, as well as welcome us to New Zealand.

We’ve had little down time so far. The Bay of Islands Cruising Association and Opua Cruising Club have been putting on a two-week welcome which started with a New Zealand orientation and continues with seminars on various topics, barbecues, pizzas and van trips to town. We’re tired just from that. We’ve also managed to start cleaning out the boat, figure out who sells which bakery goodies, and have removed the sails and given them to the sail maker for repair. We’ve also been discussing where we want to visit and what we want to do while here. The time is going to pass quickly.

Marina building with upstairs visitors lounge
Opua General Store
It may still be the South Pacific, but it is certainly not the tropics
Opua wharf with abandoned rails

Our new gated community

Tonga to New Zealand

Posted by John

There were several times during this 1,100 mile crossing that I considered calling this post “The Worst Crossing Ever.” However, just before we left Tonga, when I accidentally topped off the engine oil with several ounces of oily water, was not one of those times; but that mistake set the tone for the crossing. It might have been soon after we cleared the south end of Tongatapu and were hit with the full force of the unrestricted fetch of wind and confused seas (note: take sea sickness medication before you need it). It could’ve been the next day when we took the first of several waves into the cockpit, flooding it to more than ankle depth and soaking everything; or when water leaking through our often submerged cap rail found its way into a fluorescent light fixture over the galley counter, causing it to come on in sort of an eerie, half-glow. It was like that for a while, perhaps everyone thinking that someone else had turned it on. Or, maybe when the same leakage got into a connector intended for the non-existent #2 propane sensor, causing the propane gas detector alarm to go off and lock us out from turning on the gas to the stove. We only have one sensor, which was working okay, but even a false alarm prevents the propane from being turned on.

Or maybe I thought about calling it the worst crossing the night I lost my grip when a big wave hit and I fell backwards down the companionway steps and landed on the cabin floor flat on my back. It wasn’t landing on the floor that hurt, it was all the things I hit on the way down that caused the bruises and stiffness in the following days.

We were continually adjusting our self-steering system, which requires scary treks to the stern across the top of the aft cabin with the boat rising and falling over breaking seas of sometimes impressive height and steepness and being tossed back and forth to angles of 40 degrees or more. Sometimes it is impossible to sleep when, even strapped in, we still get tossed around. Some things you just can’t sleep through. And many nights we were forced to hand steer, trading off every hour and “sleeping” in one hour increments. Wrestling with the steering for more than an hour at a time was too much.

Then, on the night of Day 7, the wind died and the seas flattened out. On Day 8, the ocean was calm and nearly flat, with not a cloud in the sky. That couldn’t be good. As the high and low pressure systems pass by, the wind changes direction. We expected the wind to shift around and be against us at some point soon. All along we had been able to get weather reports and GRIB files by SSB radio, although sometimes connections were of low quality and very slow. On Day 9, Monday, November 6th, we realized we had to make a run for it. The Cape Brett weather reports were showing one system clearing out on Wednesday and a new, stronger one, coming in on Friday. We had one day, Thursday, where we could get into the Marina at Opua in relatively calm weather. We started the engine and motored through the calm and into Tuesday. In order to make it by Thursday we had to maintain a minimum speed close to our maximum. Then the engine quit for the first of three times.

The first time the engine quit was because the water separator was full of water. After draining it and bleeding the fuel lines, the engine restarted. We also switched the fuel supply to the starboard tank. The second time the engine quit was because the unused fuel from the engine was still being returned to the center tank rather than the starboard tank, so the starboard tank ran dry long before we expected it to. On Day 11 the engine quit a third time. I have no idea why. Maybe it was the water separator, which I drained again. Maybe it was a clogged fuel filter, which I was able to change because the wind had briefly died and the seas were flat and I could change the filter without spilling fuel all over everything.

Back in Tonga we had filled our jerry-cans three times. The first time we did it ourselves at the gas station. The second and third time we had Big Mama’s employees fill them for us. They told us that the gas station we had gone to was known for having water in their diesel. We didn’t think a whole lot of it at the time, but thinking about it now, we realized that those first two cans had gone into the center tank. We decided not to use the center tank anymore and, since the starboard was empty anyway, switched to the port tank. The port tank fuel gauge is in a very difficult place to read. We hadn’t used that tank in such a long time that I couldn’t remember if it had fuel in it or not. Julie stuck her phone in the hole and snapped a picture of the gauge. Ahh, technology has its uses. The picture of the gauge showed it was full. But now the engine wouldn’t turn over. The starter would not work. Totally dead.

The wind came up and we started sailing again, as it was from a useful direction. About now, I would’ve called this the worst crossing ever, but I had other things I was thinking about, like the predicted high winds and “very rough seas” coming to Cape Brett on Friday. Finally, after letting the starter cool off for a while, it started working again, and so did the engine.

We thought we were in the clear by now, but the wind had shifted and was coming directly from the direction we needed to go. We were taking more waves over the side and into the cockpit. Water was even coming through a dorade vent into the cabin. By the time daylight came on Thursday, we were unusually cold and miserable. The constant 85 degree temperature and 85 percent humidity was a thing of the past. We were hand steering the boat in wild waves with a 30 knot headwind, and not going very fast. We had to power up and over every wave. Looking out at the horizon, it was still as flat as ever. Then finally, there appeared to be a pale, gray mass on the horizon that was always there whenever I looked. It was not phantom land, it was real, and gradually becoming bigger as time went on.

We radioed the customs service to update them on our arrival time. The sun came out, and the hills in the distance were green. This was not such a bad crossing after all, and certainly not worth being called the worst ever.

We tied up to the Opua Customs dock. The dock is not connected to land. In a short time an official came by in a small boat and said it was too late in the day to process us, and did we mind spending the night right there (no charge), and they’d be back in the morning. We could not have heard better words, and promptly fell asleep.

Approximately 8,000 miles and 15 months to get to this point, an isolated quarantine dock at Opua, Bay of Islands, New Zealand