The passage from Fiji to New Zealand – one of the most difficult sailing passages for ‘Outwiththewind’

Is Australia or NZ better? This had been an ongoing debate ever since we ‘set foot’ in the Pacific. I was favouring Australia as it was much easier to sail to. Sorin had a special pull towards New Zealand as it was greener and prettier. And we had been playing ping pong between these two ‘outside the cyclone season’ destinations for months. Until we reached Fiji. We loved it and we knew we had to come back for more extensive cruising around the six island groups. It is easier to sail back from New Zealand than it is from Australia, so bets were sealed.

Whilst in Vuda Marina preparing our Oyster Yacht for the passage to New Zealand, the bad news were flowing in one by one… A known and experienced New Zealand sailor recently died and sunk his 50 foot sailing boat off the coast of New Zealand in 60 knots of wind and 7m waves on his way down from Fiji…a German boat got dismasted and sank, whilst its crew were rescued 180 nautical miles off the south coast of Fiji, most likely on their way to New Zealand. All sad and scary news! We knew that we are setting ourselves up for the most difficult sailing passage in our sailing around the world adventure.

We had been thoroughly studying the weather for the passage for months. As some will know the weather in the area is tricky with high pressures followed by lows on a conveyer belt. To sail safely you have to swiftly duck your way through these weather systems, which is not always possible. 

Weather and sailing go hand in hand. To hedge our bets we had hired the services of a well known kiwi weather forecast for sailing yachts provider:-Bob McDavitt or Santa Claus, how he is known amongst cruisers. Bob does weather routing for sailing yachts, taking into account the weather forecast and his many years experience with the local weather patterns.

We agreed on the departure date with Bob and he advised on the waypoints to follow in order to make the most of the weather conditions. Once out there it was all in our hands. Bob’s disclaimer states that the responsibility that he takes for the advice given is not worth more than the money paid for his advice. So not very much…

He sent us the waypoints to follow the afternoon ahead of our pre-agreed departure date. The passage Bob put together for us involved a lot of westing to harness the weather fronts and to be able to sail. All looked good. But, the morning of our departure we had a panic moment. When we downloaded the latest weather forecast we saw a low (storm conditions) over Northern New Zealand on the date of our projected arrival. We were both frozen, not knowing what to do. Meanwhile the immigration officials were waiting in the marina office to check us out. We only had seconds to wipe out the emotion and think:- ‘we had hired an advisor to follow his advice. So this is what we will do. If the worst comes to the worst we will have to wait it out, heaving to.’ There was no doubts in our minds that we are embarking in one of the most difficult sailing passage in our sailing around the world.

Our recommended route and the low over Northern New Zealand on our projected arrival date

After the beautiful goodbye song graciously delivered by the marina staff we slipped the lines and sailed away inside the lagoon. Spirits were up. We knew that what expects us is likely to be challenging, but what was the point dwelling on it instead of enjoying that perfect moment? It was a beautiful sunny day, the waters in the lagoon were blue and calm and the wind strength felt just right.

Mehalah being gifted a goodbye present by the marina staff
Our Oyster yacht is out with the wind in the lagoon

But then, exiting the lagoon felt like being snatched from our mothers’ cradles. From warmth, calm and comfort to the furious and untameable ocean waves that bit Mehalah’s nose every few seconds. 

The stress creeped in despite our best efforts. To add to the sudden change of conditions a commercial ship that came behind Mehalah through the lagoon pass decided to overtake us on the starboard side, cutting our way uncomfortably close. We really didn’t need to be ‘intimate’ with a big ship in the inclement conditions.

Sorin taking the helm to steer our Oyster yacht away from the too intimate’ commercial ship

Bang! A loud noise coming from the saloon was heard. Sorin dashes down to check on things. To his surprise there was water sloshing on the galley floor. That was alarming as we never had water in the bilges. He went through the usual scenario: salty or sweet? It was salty. Not good. He quickly checked all the newly serviced seacocks, rudder, engine. It turned out that a very small amount was dripping through the freshly serviced galley seacock. However, this could not explain the abundance of water in the galley… Sorin started the bilge pump. The water was pumped out for a while. He mended the seacock by tightening the screws. Then after a few hours Sorin checked the bilge; some water was making its way in again. It was sweet this time! From our water tanks. Sorin turned off the water coming from the tanks on the windward side of the boat and the leak stopped. Panic over.

I stayed on deck overnight. On one hand out of fear of getting sea sick and on the other hand to be a good companion to my captain. We both sat in silence. It was dark. All I could see was the white foam and froth forming around Mehalah. This was accompanied by the incessant hushing noise. ‘Our girl’ was riding the waves like a wild horse, falling with a bang into the abysmal ocean at regular intervals.

Days on end followed lying in bed with waves occasionally flowing over the cockpit and over the bow, landing straight in my bed through the air vent. Actually it was Sorin’s former bed and the only usable bed due to the hill. He settled for sleeping on the floor. Waves pouring down through the air vents was new to us. As such, we had not put any mitigating measures in place ahead of our departure; we had to live with it throughout the first few days. Also new was the regular violent banging of Mehalah’s hull into the hollow of the ocean that would make my heart sink each and every time… 

The air vent above my bank turning into a rivulet
Wiping the seawater from my arm and shoulder

On a positive note, it was the first time in a long passage that we did not have to closely monitor the battery levels. The howling wind created more energy than it was needed.

The first four days were particularly bad. None of us could stand whatsoever. I was almost crawling to the loo. Sorin was managing slightly better. He had to! Someone needed to feed the crew and look after Mehalah. She behaved exemplarily. Small as she is, she took the strong winds and big waves on the chin without a whim.

An exhausting hill on the starboard side…

As we progressed south the long forgotten warm layers had to come out one by one. The cold started to show his pointy teeth with revenge! 

Oilies out to put up with the cold

After about six days, as we were approaching the centre of the high pressure, the wind gradually abated. Sorin insisted I come out of my den. I eventually emerged shyly avoiding facing the greatness of the ocean. The sun was warming up the cool air of the morning. If felt like spring. After about half an hour I took the courage to gaze at the vastness of the ocean. It looked much better than last time, about six days back. Its mellow undulations were reassuring. We resolved to renew our friendship. 

Avoiding eye contact!

The days that followed we made progress through the centre of the high pressure motoring. The clement seas brought back the happy spirits on Mehalah and we were like bees after a long, hard winter. We cleaned Mehalah inside out, whilst the old donkey was doing its job, pushing us forward on a glassy sea. 

Even the cetaceans love a glassy sea as they seem to be always around during calms. This time they didn’t care too much about us sharing the ocean as they continued undisturbed their hunting for food. 

Our beloved companions
Sharing into the dolphins’s food, we catch a yellow fin tuna on approaching NZ

The days that followed were most calm and enjoyable. No storm over northern New Zealand that we needed to wait out. We arrived in Opua just after midnight on 8 November. We were welcomed by an euphorically loud crowd of cruisers that had arrived earlier in the day and were now celebrating hard their successful passage and safe arrival. 

‘We made it to NZ’ the board says, but the photographer must have been inebriated…

With pride, gratitude and joy we completed our Pacific crossing in 8 months and 4 days. Hurray!!!

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