Cruising in Fiordland and Stewart Island
(Based on experience in 2000 and 2008/9)
It is generally best to approach the area from the north, down the west coast, either direct from Cape Reinga or from Tasman Bay. Though you are likely to have to get through at least one active front, the weather is generally ‘honest’ oceanic weather, while that on the East Coast has been ‘corrupted’ by NZ’s mountains. The conventional wisdom, as stated by the NZ Metservice’s Bob McDavitt is that the best year is a La Nina year, because the highs tend to be further south and the best month is February.
The excellent cruising guide for Fiordland produced by the Mana Cruising Club is essential for exploring the fiords. Even in high summer you are unlikely to find many other boats in Fiordland, apart from a few fishermen. In general, the cray fishermen have filled their quotas by Christmas, often earlier. In a poor year there will still be a few around in January.
The fiords have very high rainfall (about 8 metres/year). A two week period without rain is a drought! There are regular fronts during which the winds strengthen from the NW, followed by a strong SW change, but with drier, cooler weather. In sunny weather the fiords develop strong day breezes, sometimes exceeding gale force. These usually develop around midday, and persist until after sunset. By moving mostly in the morning it is often possible to avoid the worst affects of these winds. These day breezes can make dinghy exploration difficult or hazardous.
Sandflies, a species of black fly, are the major down-side of the fiords. Their bites have longer lasting affects than those of mosquitoes. Sandflies are active during daylight hours, but also in lighted areas at night. They breed in running fresh water and so are particularly found near streams. In our experience they swarm during rainy spells, but others say that rain diminishes their numbers. We found that we were rarely bothered by sandflies when hiking in the bush, except occasionally near streams. In general, it pays to stay well covered and to use insect repellent with deet. If you prefer a less toxic product, mix baby oil and Dettol.
For those who are keen fishermen and women, the fiords abound in blue cod, which will bite at almost anything. Trumpeter are also excellent. In January and February there are also albacore tuna along the coast.
Almost all anchorages involve using stern lines with a bow anchor often in quite deep water. Fishermen have set up stern lines in many anchorages, but it is worth inspecting these before relying on them. Some are set up to be tied along-side. Fishermen have also equipped a number of anchorages with water hoses. The water from these is generally excellent, but particularly after heavy rain it is likely to have the colour of weak tea. We found it perfectly drinkable.
Given the height of the surrounding mountains, in Fiordland there is VHF coverage only when offshore. Thus, an SSB is essential for receiving weather forecasts. In addition, there is the excellent local net, Bluff Fishermen’s Radio, for both Fiordland and Stewart Island. This is operated by Meri Leask, who is virtually a national institution. She is extremely helpful to both fishermen and yachties, providing weather and receiving position reports. The net operates on 4417 morning and evening. Enquire about times which can vary, when you arrive in the area.
The northern fiords are the most spectacular scenically. Milford is particularly special, but is completely atypical, because of the large number of tourists who come in daily. It also has clouds of sandflies. The only practicable place to moor is in Deep Water Basin, either in a vacant fishing boat pen or alongside the grounded barge. Fuel is available here. If you urgently need some item of equipment, there is a bus service to Te Anau. This is via the only paved road link into Fiordland. There is an un-paved road link to Deep Cove at Doubtful Sound. There are several very pleasant day hikes in the area around Milford village.
Though they have their advocates, Sutherland, Bligh, Caswell and Nancy Sounds have relatively few anchoring options. In the midst of these is George Sound, which has two excellent anchorages, at Anchor Island and Alice Falls.
The Thompson, Bradshaw, Doubtful Sound complex is well worth exploration, it is both scenic and has a number of good anchorages. Perhaps the best of these is at Precipice Cove in Bradshaw Sound. Though it is far less developed than Milford there is some tourist activity at Deep Cove, Doubtful Sound, where fuel is also available, at a significant premium. There are a number of good day hikes around Deep Cove.
Dagg Sound has one good anchorage and the distinction of allowing one to hike a short distance to an arm of Doubtful Sound.
The Breaksea-Dusky Sound complex is probably the jewel of Fiordland. Breaksea has one or two good anchorages. Acheron Passage provides the connection to Dusky. Half-way along the passage is Stick Cove, which is an excellent funk-hole when it really blows – and who could pass up being anchored in Wet Jacket Arm!
Dusky Sound has some of the high beauty of the northern Sounds, but also islands and small coves which make good anchorages. For Cook fans it also has strong historical connections to the great Captain. You can even anchor in Pickersgill Harbour in the very spot where James Cook moored ‘Resolution’ for a month, to refit, after returning from Antarctica in 1773. Luncheon Cove is also excellent, though the bottom has been so ploughed up over the years that the holding is suspect. There are any number of excellent hikes throughout the area.
Both Chalky and Preservation Inlets have a number of good anchorages. Lake Cove at the top of Edwardson Sound and the island anchorage in Isthmus Sound are surprisingly peaceful even in a blow and it does blow hard quite often down in this SW corner, where the fronts bounce off the end of the mountains. Both these Inlets have a number of interesting hikes, often exploring the abortive attempts of early settlers to exploit the mineral resources of the area.
For departing the area, it generally pays to wait for a settled spell of moderate westerlies, whether heading East towards Bluff or Dunedin, or South to Port Pegasus on Stewart Island. Unless pressed for time we would strongly recommend continuing to Port Pegasus on Stewart Island, which also gives the opportunity of rounding one of the five Great Southern Capes. The whole area from the Solander Islands along the southern coast of Stewart Island is also crowded with sea birds, particularly Royal and Bullers albatross. It is worth taking this route just to see them.
What the Bay of Islands is for northern New Zealand, Stewart Island and Port Pegasus in particular, is for southern New Zealand. Much of the scenery is similar to some of the Scottish Islands. Though the weather is generally somewhat drier than Fiordland, it is still pretty rainy much of the time and the same pattern of frontal weather is to be expected. In general the sandflies are much fewer. There is also an excellent guide for cruising Stewart Island published by the Mana Cruising Club.
As in Fiordland there are stern lines set up in many of the anchorages, which are themselves generally much shallower. There are excellent hiking tracks throughout the Island. The only area of habitation on the Island is the village of Oban at Half-Moon Bay on the eastern coast. There is a ferry from Oban to Bluff. Stores and fuel are available at Oban, but its facilities are not extensive. There has been an increase in tourism at Oban since Stewart Island was named a World Heritage Area in 2002. However, this has little impact or affect on the Island as a cruising area.
Port Pegasus is a small but wonderful cruising ground. It is divided into Northern and Southern Arms. Each has a number of excellent anchorages, though only one or two provide all-round shelter. However, the distances are so small that it is easy to move to complete shelter in very little time. The charting of Port Pegasus is incomplete, so it is necessary to keep an eye out for the kelp, which might indicate a rock.
The best shelter is ironically at Disappointment Cove in the Southern Arm. This is more appropriately known as Peacehaven by the local fishermen and is absolutely protected in even the most vile conditions. Other excellent anchorages are Evening Cove, which is a good starting point for the hike to Magog Peak, and Waterlily, from which one can explore Basin Creek by dinghy at high tide. There are numerous other good anchorages and two excellent longer hikes, one up the Tin Range Track, which takes all day to return, and the other up to Bald Cone, a half-day return. It is worth a dinghy trip up to the very attractive Belltopper Falls.
The anchorage options at both Lord’s River and Port Adventure are more limited, but these are worth a stop. Though not up to the strength of English Channel tides, those of the South Coast of Stewart Island can reach a couple of knots and the irregular bottom can kick up a very unpleasant sea in wind against tide conditions.
Entrance to Paterson Inlet is from the East Coast. Though the Inlet is somewhat protected by the bulk of Stewart Island between it and the westerlies, it can still blow very hard at times, when the wind accelerates through Foveaux Strait to the north. Inside the Inlet there are a large number of excellent anchorages, as well as access to Oban by road. Once again the distances between anchorages are not great. Unlike Port Pegasus, in most cases stern lines are not used. Little Glory, Kaipipi and Kidney Fern all provide excellent protection.
There are opportunities to see kiwi at Ocean Beach and a variety of native NZ birds in the wildlife reserve on Ulva Island. The remains of the Norwegian whaling station in Prices Inlet are also worth exploration. There are a wide variety of day hiking opportunities in the area, as well as longer tracks for the intrepid.
There are a number of coastal anchorages on the north-eastern and western coasts. We have not explored these and it would require a good spell of settled weather to do so.
Departing from Stewart Island is straight-forward if heading East to Dunedin, about 150 miles away, as almost any westerly, of which there are plenty, will do. Bluff just across the Strait to the North is pleasant enough, but has few facilities and the port is set up for fishing boats, not yachts.
Tom & Vicky Jackson, ‘Sunstone’