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ARCA – Around the North Island in 13 Weeks!

Cook Strait is never dull, but after 15 years of crossing "The Ditch" to the Sounds or Tasman Bay I was looking for a little more adventure. I was also about to have my 55th birthday and the suspicion was growing that if I did not attempt a longer coastal passage soon I might lose my nerve.



Gavin Sharp

My yacht ARCA is moored at Mana near Plimmerton and the thought of sailing around the North Island had lots of appeal. I could stop over in Gisborne where I learned to sail 40 years ago but hadn’t seen since I left school. I also wanted to explore the Bay of Islands. The prospect revisting the islands of the Hauraki Gulf and seeing some of the America Cup action on the water seemed very appealing at the time but proved disappointing in reality.

On the last day of school for the year I checked the weather forecast several times and realised that unless I left that night I ran the risk of being trapped by a Cook Strait southerly. So with my son Greg as crew, we slipped our mooring lines at 2100hrs leaving the Mana Island astern an hour later. I dropped well south of Cape Terewhiti to avoid the Karori Rip and gave a wide berth to the midnight Ferry from Picton before altering course for Cape Palliser. We flew through the night with one reef in the main, reaching along on the last gasp of the northerly.

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Cape Palliser in background in near calm conditions

Sunrise the next morning was awe inspiring. This was the first time of many dawns when I would watch in wonder at the sun breaking free of the horizon with fiery red scarves stretching out before it. Unfortunately that was about the last exciting event for the next 36 hours. No southerly eventuated and we were forced to run the motor in the absence of wind to keep the bow facing into a horrible chop left over from the night before.

As Greg and I prepared for our third night at sea I noted in the log that we had had to run the motor for 33 of the last 48 hours because of lack of wind. So much for the notorious East Coast I thought until I tuned into maritime radio to hear a storm warning being issued for Castle Point only 100 miles behind us. What a wonderful sense of relief that I had left on the first night and not waited until the morning to depart Mana.

We must have caught the edge of the wind system to the south because a few hours later it was double reef and reaching along with 25 – 30 kts of wind just forward of the beam. All through the night with only an occasional shower we barrelled across Hawke Bay and along the outside of Mahia Peninsula. As dawn broke the wind began to ease but shaking out one reef and then the next we maintained good speed arriving in Gisborne on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. We were both very tired after three broken nights so after a quick shower at the Club Rooms on the Wharf we put our heads down for some catch up. I think I slept with a smile on my face. I had achieved my first goal safely. I had completed a coastal passage of 300 miles from Mana to Gisborne.

On Christmas day I showed my son Greg the house I grew up in and the river below the house where I first tried to sail a moth but where I only ended up putting the mast into the mud. We walked to the top of Kaiti Hill with the tarseal road melting from the heat and phoned family in Wellington. We were told Wellington was in the grip of a gale. It was raining and other boats at Mana had been held up from crossing the Strait to the Sounds. I couldn’t believe my luck. Had I waited just one more day to leave I would probably still be there.

Gisborne to Whangamata via Tauranga

Christmas Day and Boxing Day were spent wandering the streets of Gisborne and remembering school days, paper rounds and girl friends I had thought long forgotten. But when the weather forecast the next day looked settled the decision was made to head for East Cape. We cleared the Gisborne breakwater mid morning with a good reaching breeze and were making excellent progress up the coast as darkness fell. I had heard so many horror stories of other boats rounding the Cape in confused seas and gale force winds that in my haste to leave the Cape behind me, I passed up the chance to enjoy the delights of places like Tologa Bay. We had East Island abeam as the sun rose the next morning and about an hour later I found myself staring at the majestic sight of Mt Hikurangi and its mighty bluffs lit up in the early suns rays. What a great spot for those who climbed it to welcome in the millennium three years ago.

The next 24 hours were lights winds and quite uneventful. As we drifted past White Island the forecast was for SE winds in the morning and not wanting to have to beat to windward into Tauranga the next morning I changed my plan of sailing around the outside of all the rocks and reefs and set a course more directly towards entrance of Tauranga Harbour. I expected it would daylight before having to navigate past any hazards however about midnight a fresh breeze sprang up from the north and we were soon barrelling along at 6kts with the need to safely navigate to the entrance in the dark. Using the principle taught to me in Coastal Navigation Courses that knowing with certainty where you are not, (ie not near anything dangerous) is more important than knowing exactly where you are, I set my GPS on a direct course for the most dangerous underwater rocks ahead and then proceeded to sail one mile to the side of the track as I approached this final danger. Without a chart I cannot explain the logic of this method but I also use it to avoid ‘Cook’s Rock’ when sailing to the Sounds.

Just before sunrise I had a very strange conversation on the VHF with the foreign sounding skipper of a large ship also making its way to Tauranga. I firmly believe that it is better to call up another vessel to make sure they have you on radar than to find out too late that they have you on a collision course because they have not seen you. He must have thought I was slightly mad when I asked him what his intentions were, as his lights shortly afterwards showed he was moving away from me and not nearer. I didn’t mind what he thought as long as he knew I was there.

As I made my way into Tauranga harbour I couldn’t understand why I was making such slow progress as I had checked that it was an incoming tide. Later I discovered that I had looked up the wrong year. The Nautical Almanac had been printed with two years of tide tables. I was only 12 months out!

That afternoon my son caught a bus back to Wellington and my sister arrived as new crew and with fresh food.

Sailing across Cook Strait year after year in 2-3m swell and broken seas does not prepare you for the amazing sensation of sailing on dead flat water with full sail, 25kts of steady wind and the rail sitting just above the water. This was my experience two days after arriving when I took my sister and niece out for their first sail. Coupled with the strong tidal streams on the inner harbour I could hardly believe how fast the shoreline was sliding by with so little boat motion. The GPS indicated 9-10kts over the bottom and I just sat back and enjoyed every minute of it.

We left Tauranga the next day bouncing our way over a succession of standing waves at the entrance. Our destination was Whangamata Harbour but we had decided to stop overnight at Mayor Island. The water was beautifully clear and the weather so settled that we anchored well off from the beach and watched the sun set over the mainland in the distance.

As we cleared the island headland the next morning a long lazy swell greeted us from the north, but no sign of wind. More motoring! That is when I saw my first flying fish! I couldn’t believe it; they really do fly! This one came out of the swell and stayed just above the surface for at least 30 metres and appeared to use its tail dipped in the water like a rudder. Next a couple of large sharks glided by, the biggest I had ever seen but not unusual I was told later by my brother who keeps a fishing boat at Whangamata.

The Cruising Guide clearly describes where to look for the leading marks at the entrance to Whangamata. Well I never spotted them. Even after arriving and going for a walk along the beach I found them hard to identify. However with several hundred motorboats coming and going it wasn’t too difficult to pick the general area of the sand bar. Never the less I still did not enjoy watching the depth sounder slide down to less that 1.5metres before the depth increased again. Inside the entrance was also a surprise to me. The channel was so narrow, with pole moorings along one side and swing moorings on the other, that there was very little room to turn. Turning was also made difficult because of the constant stream of vessels in both directions, more like driving a car down a narrow two lane highway waiting for a chance to turn across the traffic. I had written ahead and booked a mooring but repeated calls to the Harbourmaster on the VHF brought no response until the local Coast Guard came on the radio and said they would pass on my message. Once I had picked up my mooring I was able to relax a little and enjoy the entertainment of watching scores of boaties jostle for position in their attempts to land crew on the only available wharf. With 600 miles under the keel I was also growing quietly confident that I would complete what I had set out to do. I was also keen to phone my partner in Wellington because I had now arrived at the place where she would join me for the next section of my trip. Unfortunately 10,000 visitors to Whangamata with 10,000 cell phones had jammed the system and so after inflating the dingy I rowed ashore to find a phone box.

Whangamata – Hauraki Gulf

I had prepared for the possibility of rough weather during the trip up the East Coast of the North Island, but having made it safely to Whangamata I began to relax and confidently look forward to long lazy days working my way around into the relative safety of the Hauraki Gulf. Silly Man!

The first night in the tiny sheltered bay called "Boat Harbour" in the Cruising Guide, just north of Slipper Island was a joy. A second night in one of the outer bays of Mercury Bay was also pleasant in spite of the occasional rain shower. But signs of what was to come began to make themselves known as we passed through Hole in the Wall towards Great Mercury Island. The forecast sounded ominous so we anchored in the main bay under the cliffs as the wind began to build.

Over the next 24 hours more than 50 other craft anchored in and around us and about this time we heard on VHF that a fishing boat out of Tryphena had overturned and one crew was missing, presumed drowned. We stayed put for four days. We did not have a lot of choice. Wonderful waterfalls appeared over the cliffs after each downpour and two dolphins cruised by each day to entertain us but all our fresh food was gone and without a fridge there was only tinned food left.

On the forth day the wind had dropped to 35kts. Time to go! I double reefed the main and we pushed our nose out of the Bay and headed for Channel Island. The seas were huge but with wind and tide going the same way we wanted to go ARCA was responding to the helm easily. Though threatening to crash onto the stern the mountains of water behind us stayed where they were supposed to be – outside the boat. We covered the first 25nm in little over four hours and the GPS showed 9kts over the ground as we passed Channel Island.

Up ahead I could see a great band of dolphins advancing en masse towards us. Suddenly out of the sky dropped hundreds and hundreds of gannets in a great feeding frenzy. The dolphins had brought the fish to the surface and the birds were having a field day.

About an hour later we sailed into the wind shadow of the Coromandel Range and were suddenly becalmed. It seemed amazing that only a short while earlier we had been weathering gusts over 40kts! When I went to start the motor however, nothing happened. Upon investigation I found the fuel line loose and air in the line. My attempts to bleed fuel lines had never been very successful in the past, so I reported my situation on radio but advised I was confident of getting to Waiheke Island without assistance. Ruthe Passage seemed to be the best option and I checked I would have a favourable tide when I arrived at the entrance. Imagine my consternation when part way through a commercial fishing boat with trawling lines already deployed appeared straight ahead. With no motor I would have preferred to stay in the centre of the channel but he was bigger than me so I moved as close to the rocks as I dared and thought rude thoughts long after he passed.

I chose a bay in the lee of Ponui Is to anchor for the night. There were no dramas rounding up and dropping the anchor under sail. The people on the next boat called out to stop "showing off" but later when I explained to them why I hadn’t used my motor I could hardly believe my luck when one of the scoffers admitted to being a mechanic on holiday and offered to bleed the fuel line for me. My only bottle of Rum seemed a small price to pay to be underway again the next morning.

Hauraki Gulf

On my journey around the North Island I spent nearly six weeks in and out of Auckland revisiting favourite spots around the Hauraki Gulf. While my wife was still with me, we went ashore at Oneroa on Waiheke for a stroll, coffee and stores. We also went walking up through the hospital ruins and wild flower meadows on Motuihe and while anchored off Browns Island we were treated to a helicopter rescue practice off the cliffs less than 100m from the boat. When I dropped Joss off on the Admiralty Steps in Auckland to catch a bus to the airport a huge cruise liner towered above us with all its lifeboats bigger than ARCA.

I had planned my time in the Auckland area to coincide with the America’s Cup races but in fact only went out once as a spectator. However nothing had prepared me for the wash created by the incoming spectator fleet each day. One night anchored amongst the moorings near the Akarana Yacht Club the yacht was bouncing around so violently that I had to wait two hours before it was safe enough to cook tea. Another night anchored out in front of the Devonport Yacht Club, ARCA was lifting and falling so much I was convinced the keel was being bounced in the mud but it was too dangerous to row out in the turmoil of broken water to check. After the terrors of being caught in the middle of the incoming fleet once, I made sure I was well clear on other days. However I did enjoy the day the super yachts were scheduled to race. It was dead flat calm and I was able to motor in and around them taking photos as they sat becalmed near the start line before the race was cancelled.

My two sons, one with a partner, arrived from Wellington. We spent a few quiet days making a circuit of Waiheke with one of the nights in the tranquillity of Hook Bay at the Eastern end. We returned to Devonport for supplies and dinner with friends and woke next morning to an electrical storm and gale force winds blowing down the harbour. Bayswater Marina could not allow us to stay another day as they needed our rented berth for another yacht visiting for the A.C. Getting out of the berth and then out of the marina with winds gusting at 40kts required some careful thought and planning. I rehearsed the crew on the sequence to follow then with heart in mouth set everything in motion. It needed full power on the motor to hold position along the channel but when we turned down the harbour I began to relax. With two reefs in the main and the small jib we were flying. Each time the rain squalls cleared we could see one other mad yachtie working hard to overtake us. Just as they came abeam while passing Islington Bay their jib split right down the centre and we won the "race" by default. That night we anchored behind Motutapu Island and the gale began to moderate.

The next morning there was still plenty of wind for a fast trip to Kawau Is where my son finally succeeded in seeing a small wallaby in the bush. As the day progressed hundreds of boats from Auckland began arriving for a delayed start to anniversary weekend. By nightfall it felt as if one could walk from one shore to the other by jumping boat to boat, so many boats had crowded into the Bay. It was a very pleasant few days, walking to the copper mine, snorkelling around the sunken hulk and watching the sunsets each evening. On the way back to Auckland we anchored off little Manly Bay and watched school kids leaping off the cliffs into the sea and the next day we sailed passed the two Alinghi A.C. boats trialling off Browns Bay. I left my family at Devonport and motored out on my own.

I still had 10 days before my next crew would arrive from Wellington for the trip up to the Bay of Islands and after having shared my cabin with three energetic young persons and their rock music, was looking forward to a bit of solitude and my own classical music tapes. I headed to the bottom of Waiheke and next day across to Coromandel Harbour. The air was warm, the breeze steady and I was feeling totally at peace with the world. I meandered up the Coromandel Coast amongst the outlying islands working my way through my complete set of tapes. As I headed back to Auckland I placed a phone call to the previous owner of ARCA. Would he like to join me for a day’s sailing before I headed north? I picked him up off Bucklands Beach. We had a fine run down to Ponui Island and a great lunch. He was very interested in the new roller furler I had fitted together with other modification I had made for the cruise. On the way back the wind began to rise and was soon above 30kts. Another reef in the main and a reduction in jib area and we ploughed on with the rail going under every now and then in the gusts. It took the best part of four hours to beat back but it was a spectacular end to my six weeks revisiting my old sailing playground. I was now more than ready to head for the Bay of Islands having never been further north than Kawau Island. My only regret was not having made the time to revisit Tryphena and Port Fitzroy on Great Barrier.

Auckland – Bay of Islands

My departure from Auckland for the Bay of Islands marked several milestones. It was eight weeks since I had left Mana and 1000nm under the keel. While more than half my time had been used up, this leg would at last see me passing the halfway point in distance.

Around midday on the 19th Feb one crew (John) from Devonport, came aboard and we motored across to Westhaven to fill the water & fuel tanks and then down to Admiralty Steps to collect the third crew member who had flown up from Wellington for just this leg of the journey. We had a pleasant sail down to Rakino Is. where we anchored for the night. Early the next morning we hoisted the sails to a gentle breeze but as we ate breakfast what little wind there was died away and the motor was started. In fact the motor was needed on and off all day. As dark fell I was heartily sick of the sound of the motor and began to look on the chart for a good spot to anchor off the Hen and Chickens.

The sudden arrival of a rapidly rising NW wind changed my mind. We quickly reefed the main and agreed to sail through the night. The next afternoon John insisted we put into Whangamumu which he said was his all time favourite Bay along this bit of coast. What a surprise to come through the tiny entrance into this hidden treasure.

Instead of hoisting the sails the next morning we motored close under the cliffs and enjoyed watching the under-water scenery slip by below us in crystal clear visibility and I left the motor running so that we could get a good close up look at Hole in the Rock. We came in through the Albert channel, found a quiet bay for a swim and decided to stay put for the night in spite of a flock of honking geese on the shore.

The next day we put John ashore at Pahia to return to Devonport, had lunch and bought some supplies at Russell and headed back out to Moturua Island where we walked up a track to a waterfall. Several lazy days followed out amongst the islands until a gale warning on marine radio made us head into Opunga Cove for shelter. This is a great spot for an H28 which can get close to the protection of the shoreline. Some of the larger boats with deeper keels were further out and dragged their anchors, providing us with hours of entertainment from the comfort of our better position. Two days later we saw one unlucky yacht had broken free, been tossed up onto the rocks and was badly holed.

Don was sad to be leaving at this stage but I on the other hand was looking forward to seeing my wife who was coming up from Wellington to spend two weeks on ARCA with me. On the way in to drop Don off the engine began to overhead badly and I could see that there was not enough cooling water coming out the exhaust. I decided to continue up to Opua so that I could have the cooling system looked at but just as we passed the point where the Opua ferry crosses, the water pump impellor failed and the smell of hot exhaust from inside the cabin filled the air.

I killed the motor and with 20 seconds to decide pointed the bow in amongst some moored boats and let the anchor go!  I was not very happy with my position near the edge of the channel and so close to ferry but the weather forecast was good and the anchor was holding well so decided to stay put until my wife arrived that evening. The following 24 hours were something of an emotional roller coaster ride. That night my wife surprised me by giving me a wedding ring to mark our marriage three years earlier. This should have been the beginning of a “second honeymoon” but a phone call early the next morning informed us that my wife’s mother had died during the night.

There was now an urgent need for both of us to get back to Wellington. First however I had to arrange for a tow into the marina. It would have been foolhardy to have left the boat unattended on an anchor in such a vulnerable position. As many readers will know, a strong tide flows through the Opua marina. Getting ARCA into the berth would require care and skill. I made contact with a local workboat who came alongside and rafted up tight with springs fore and aft as well as bow and stern lines. I winched up the anchor and we headed into the marina. The most difficult manoeuvre was turning up into the berth without being pushed down onto the opposite poles. We had just begun this turn when a “fizz boat” decided go past us. At the very same moment we noticed that the yacht next to the berth we were about to enter had tied up their dinghy across the entrance to our berth. The skipper of my “tow” let rip with a torrent of colourful language which had an instant effect. The “fizz boat” made himself scarce and the owner of the dinghy quickly appeared to move it out of the way. Suffice to say not a scratch or dent anywhere.

When Joss and I returned from the funeral I was able to easily replace the water pump impellor on my own and we still managed ten relaxing days exploring the islands and sipping latte’s on the Russell waterfront.  Joss returned to Wellington by air and I began to prepare ARCA and myself for the sea journey home as well.  Ahead of me lay 400nm to New Plymouth and no safe harbours to run for if the weather turned bad but I was ready to go home.