Round the North Island





Coming back down to Auckland from the Bay of Islands, we had an example of what even a moderate swell looks like in the narrow entrance to Tutukaka. It made us wonder what it looked like in the winter storms when the strong easterlies and south-easterlies had driven boats ashore from moorings all along the Northland coast where they had been safe for decades.






With ‘Sunstone’ once again at her berth in Westhaven Marina, we had the opportunity to catch up with two cruising couples. We met Chris and Joyce Title when crossing the Pacific in 1999. They have since imported their Dashew, ‘Touche m’Dear’, and built a huge, very Californian house overlooking the marina at Gulf Harbour. They come to New Zealand for the summer and return to California – for the summer. Chris is one of those rarities, an artist who has been a commercial success in his life-time.


The next day, by contrast, we went to visit Malcolm and Joan Dickson at their newly acquired cottage in Torbay. Though they have done a wonderful job of refurbishment, so they can return to it occasionally when not cruising in ‘Sarau’, the point of the exercise was to acquire the section the cottage sits on. This will be the site of a family house for their daughter Linda and husband Jeremy. Nevertheless, the cottage looked just right to us as a cruisers toe-hold on the land and we were not a little jealous.





Georgina and Greg Noble have been kind and supportive with help and advice as we have settled into Auckland. We had a pleasant day and picnic with them and son, Herc (Hercules) at Motuihe Island in the Harbour. Fortunately the weather was kind. Even as it was, Georgina found the sail there and back something of a trial. As so often, steering, which she did very well, seemed to help.


With a free Sunday on our hands, we made a day trip down to less-than-exciting Hamilton and then a side tour to Raglan Harbour. Like most of the West Coast Harbours it is heavily barred and shallow, so that at low water there are miles of mud flats, rather reminiscent of the Thames Estuary in England. Though nothing like so bad as in Australia, the lack of rain this summer has dried out many parts of New Zealand which are normally covered with lush green grazing. We passed through mile after mile of brown hills on the way back to Auckland.





Our ‘holiday’ away from sailing ended with the briefing for the Two-Handed Round North Island Race, which included a life-raft demonstration. It was also intended to include a demo of a rescue from a helicopter – until the copter was called away to undertake a real rescue.


The fleet for the Race was extremely varied from an Open 50 at the top end and a Thompson 850 at the bottom. With 24 entries, it was a good fleet and much larger than in most previous years. The Race has been run every three years. There are three stops, at Mangonui in Northland, Wellington and then Napier in Hawkes Bay on the East Coast. By far the longest leg is the second, while the most tactically varied and demanding is probably the last. The third leg out of Wellington has a reputation for strong winds, both coming out of Wellington and along the Wairarapa coast going north.



There was some controversy about the start of the Race. On the Friday morning scheduled for the start, there was 40-50 knots forecast and reports of up to 50 knots from some weather stations along the course to the north. The race committee decided to postpone for 20 hours, both in the interests of safety and to avoid damage to boats in the fleet when they had barely set out on the 1,200 mile course. Though it was disadvantageous to heavier boats, like ‘Sunstone’, this was probably a sensible decision. In the event, the Sunday start gave us a nice beat out of the Harbour in 15-20 knots, which took us all right up to Cape Rodney, freeing us after we passed Kawau Island. After Cape Rodney the wind died steadily, until at about dusk the whole fleet was parked and stayed that way until just after midnight, when the breeze filled slowly from the SW.



The cloud of the previous day gave way to perfect late summer weather and the breeze filled steadily to give a fast beam to close reach up the coast. We had a few minutes of heart-stopping anxiety with the genoa backed and bare steerage way, as we shot the gap at the top of the Cavalli Islands. We soon settled back into good breeze, which headed until we were on the wind in ‘Sunstone’s’ favourite conditions. We made good progress against other boats in our class, but not quite good enough to catch ‘Insight II’, with whom we level rated and had been sailing head to head for much of the leg.




Sporting a huge genniker, Jody and father Erin had made excellent time in the close reaching sections of the course and held us off during the last beat to the line. They crossed a minute and a half ahead to win both the division and – as it turned out - the overall PHRF handicap. Our consolation was to be second on PHRF and first on IRC, second going to the Cookson 50 ‘Akatea’. The lower rating boats did well on the leg because of the four-hour park-up, a disadvantage that the big boats could never overcome.


The stop at Mangonui was pleasant but necessarily very brief, with the start slightly less than 24 hours after our evening arrival. Fortunately, ‘Sunstone’s’ relatively shallow draft qualified us for a mooring which the deeper boats couldn’t use.





We had just long enough to swap tales with other crews, catch up on some missed sleep and we were away. It was perfect weather for the start, a brisk but not heavy shy reach. Unfortunately, just the kind of thing that Kiwi boats are designed for and relish. So we watched the fleet sail away from us. Nevertheless we made good time up to North Cape, which we rounded somewhat after dark. Despite cutting the Cape a little too fine and losing wind briefly, we still just made the tide at Cape Reinga and came on the wind heading south-west in the steadily lightening breeze. During the next day the wind lifted steadily, but also continued to ease until there was very little indeed. We had expected as much and were ready with our usual arrangement of No. 3 sheeted hard to the rail and the flattened main with a preventer also to the rail.



Fortunately, everyone else was experiencing the same conditions and though we were well to the rear of the fleet we hoped that the wind would fill as predicted from a NWly direction, allowing us to make up some ground. So it proved, but only after a day and a half of little or nothing. So much for the wild west coast! There was little relief from the tiring tedium of keeping the boat moving in approximately the right direction with bare steerage way – until a New Zealand Air Force Orion appeared low on the horizon and over-flew us. We had been aware that one of the boats in the fleet, ‘Nevenka’, had not reported in for 24 hours. Apparently a decision was made to send the Orion looking. This would have been entertaining in other circumstances and fortunately ‘Nevenka’ was spotted the next day, with no problems on board.


Gradually the wind filled and we were able to make good progress, getting the spin up. The little Thompson 850, ‘Waka’ made a startling 12 hour run, as did one or too other downwind fliers. However, we were all becoming a little wary as the weather forecast predicted gloom and doom – at least to the extent of 40+ knots of wind in Cook Strait. Though the wind got up to 30 or so for a brief spell, the predicted gale never arrived. We were lucky with the tides in the Cook Strait which can be a major problem, with various rips and overfalls likely in the wrong conditions.





By luck, we hit them right, bucking foul tide where it didn’t matter much and getting fair tide where it did the most good. Just where we were sure that the wind would hit us hard, before the turn into Wellington Harbour, it died away almost completely and we jigged our way through the holes to get into the Harbour entrance. Fortunately, unlike some others who were actually becalmed for some time with the finish in sight, we then picked up the breeze for a brisk beat up the Channel, followed again by some light patches and a final burst of gusty reaching to the finish. With Steve Ashley’s very necessary help, we got ourselves berthed in Chaffers Marina just as the typical Wellington 40 knot northerly came screaming in.

Mount Egmont  40 miles away stirred up some most peculiar winds as we turned the corner into Cook Strait.





The cabin was full of wet sails and soon also full of people as Charles and Robert from ‘Carenza’ and Steve from ‘Zora’ arrived for a midnight beer. With two days in which to make some kind of recovery, we enjoyed ourselves and worked through increasingly unbelievable accounts of experiences during the leg. At the same time we listened with sympathy to the VHF as the back-marker of the fleet, ‘Topflight’, tried to beat her way into the Harbour against the tide and 40 knots of wind.



Because of the day and half of slow going down the west coast, the big boats once again suffered and so, despite a less than stellar performance we still managed a fifth overall on PHRF and first on IRC for the leg. In the meantime, Welllington lived up to its reputation, with the wind blowing strongly from the north until it stopped for an hour or two – and started blowing strongly from the south. It was still doing so by the time of the restart and most boats headed out with No.3s or even 4s to tackle the beat out of the Harbour and down to Cape Palliser. With the tide against most of the way, the big boats were favoured and were soon well away. But the conditions were also good for us and we made good time out to Palliser, where we just scraped by, having to put in a couple of short tacks under the cliffs when the wind failed us. Nevertheless, we were well up at the next morning’s radio sched and settled down for the long close reach up the dry and desolate Wairarapa coast, occasionally changing up from the No.4 to the No.2 and back again, mostly with a full main.




When we reached Cape Kidnappers and bore away for Napier we briefly considered setting a spin, but were glad we didn’t, as the wind headed progressively and finally had us beating to just lay the finish line. We had a nasty shock a couple of miles out when ‘Nevenka’ called in at the finish. We knew she only gave us 25-30 minutes. In the event, we only beat her to take the division for the leg, by 3 minutes. Otherwise it was a big boat leg as was shown by our 10th place on PHRF and 3rd in IRC. Nevertheless, because the big boats had done badly on the first two legs, we suddenly found ourselves in first place overall on PHRF and in 2nd on IRC. It was all to play for on the final leg.





With all the boats convivially crowded together near the Club at Napier and two days in which to relax and recover, Napier was easily the most social of the stops. One of the great things about two-handed racing is that it is so social, as it’s possible to get the crews from several boats around a single table in a way that would be impossible with full crews. The Club at Napier was very welcoming and friendly, the weather was kind, the beer and rum flowed freely and a good time was had by all – with only a few exceptions (see below).



‘Akatea’ and ‘Rantan’ were two of the bigger and potentially more competitive boats. ‘Ran Tan’ easily took the honours on the third leg, while ‘Akatea’ performed consistently well on IRC. At the other end of the fleet, ‘Waka’ and ‘Topflight’ (both below) were the smallest boats, though very different. The ‘Wakas’ had hoped for a downwind race so that they could get their overgrown skiff really humming, but they were disappointed to have only one half day stretch of real downwind flying, when they turned in the longest 12 hour run of the whole fleet. The ‘Topflights’ showed admirable perseverance and remained surprisingly cheerful throughout the race despite the extra hours they spent at sea. ‘Escapology’ had the most unfortunate breakage in the fleet, when their full holding tank ruptured on the beat out of Wellington and filled the bilge with sewage. They spent virtually the whole of the two-day stop in Napier cleaning ship. Not an enviable task!




The sailmaking crews from both Doyle and North did sterling work in both Wellington and Napier. By the time they finished with one or two of the damaged sails, it looked as though they were mostly held together with sticky back Kevlar and two-sided tape. We did wonder how some of the boats would have got on without stops or without the all-night sessions put in by the sailmakers.



For those of us with boats which did not require repair or cleansing, the alternative was the wine-tour, which took in three local Hawkes Bay vineyards. By far the most interesting was the first. In our round the world tour of wine-growing areas we have heard quite a number of talks from wine-makers, but that at the Moana Park vineyard was by far the most impressive. The young man who gave it had a remarkable and fluent grasp of the technicalities of his speciality, which he managed to convey in an interesting way, which really gave some insight into what was distinctive about his product. It was very interesting – and more importantly the wine was good. Our gentle amble through the countryside on the top deck of a London Transport bus also gave us a chance to get acquainted with some of the crews from other boats, with whom we had not so far spoken. It was a really nice day.





Clockwise from above:


The Open 50,’Andar’




‘Mrs Jones’ and ‘Danaide’. (The latter was one of the most consistently well sailed boats in the fleet.)






We have now raced in 17 different countries, but until Napier we had never been expected to start in anything less than 4-5 knots of wind. At Napier when the gun went there was nothing. Even the lightest boats barely had steerage-way. There were several minor collisions and right of way boats had to give way to those with no rights. A very light zephyr slowly filled, which moved the lighter boats away, but we did not manage to cross the line until 37 minutes after the gun – and we were not the last! It was not an auspicious start to the last crucial leg. However the wind slowly built and we managed to play the shifts so that by sunset we were still in touch.



After a light spell getting past Portland Island (looking astonishingly like the English Portland) the wind built a good deal more as darkness fell and we started to get going. After a change down to the No 3 we passed four or five boats and were weathering on several others, so that by day break we were quite well placed. However during the morning the breeze lightened, threatening to undo all the hard work of the night, until it built again in the early afternoon and we really got going again, playing the shifts and working our way west, without getting too close to the shore. We were very aware how important it would be to make the tide at East Cape, which we managed just after dark.







We then stood north for a time to get away from the worst of the foul tide. Unlike most of those in our class however, we then tacked west, as we expected wind shifts the next day from westerly directions. In the meantime, the big boats had gone way west past White Island and deep into the Bay of Plenty where most ran out of wind for some time. For us the wind went lighter during the morning and early afternoon of the next day, with some radical shifts. These apparently affected the whole fleet, but many tacked on them early and then sailed the outside of the lifts, while we tended to go well into the shifts before tacking. This seemed to pay. By nightfall the wind was building very positively and we were laying the Mercury Islands, our next turning point. During the night we worked very hard making several very, very wet sail changes back and forth between the Nos. 2 and 3 to keep the boat going at its optimum.



Dawn found us tired but cheerful, steaming past the Mercuries on a close fetch. The morning radio sched showed that we were leading the class and well up overall. We were worried that the vagaries of the southern Hauraki Gulf, on what promised to be a hot day, might undo all the good work. However, after a light spell under the lee of Cape Colville, we picked up the breeze again. We each caught a nap as we close-fetched quickly toward the Motuihe Channel. During the whole race we rarely had more than a single hour’s kip at any one time and during the previous night it had been much less than that.





It all looked very promising. We were doing close to seven knots most of the time, with every sign that the breeze would hold – until it didn’t. As we approached the Noises, a clump of rocks at the northern end of the Motuihe Channel, the wind shut off and the tide turned. For the next three hours we fiddled and struggled trying to make a little way toward the finish not many miles away. ‘Not Negotiable’, a boat in the next class up, was only a mile or two away, sharing our struggles.




Finally at about 1530 a very light sea breeze filled in from the NW and we started making some ground. But the breeze was full of holes through which we picked our way, mostly managing to keep the light kite flying. As we passed the Rangitoto Channel the wind filled a little more and headed enough to bring the kite down. Once we were past North Head the breeze filled yet more to give a fast close reach up the Harbour. It was just as well, as we had heard others in our class who had been miles behind looming up closer.


There was a final obstacle. Monday night is the night on which the Stewart 34s have their massed windward-leewards. As luck would have it, to reach our finish line we had to pass across the front of the Stewarts start line. Anyone who has sailed in Stewarts, as we have, knows that they do not give way without a fight, so we were more than a little relieved when we slipped past their outer distance mark just before their start gun and in front of several threatening bows to cross our own line for the last time.




We knew that we had won our division and hoped that we might have done better. When we heard that the bigger boats had also had problems getting to and across the finish during previous night and earlier in the day, we began to be hopeful of a good result.


We were very, very tired, but also happy. Not only did we feel that we had sailed a good race, but we had no breakages and practically no arguments! The post-race gathering on the Race Officer, David Cooke’s, launch, ‘Trinidad’, rounded things off nicely. It was a great race, well organised by a club with very little infrastructure, but an enthusiastic and able committee, completely committed to making the race a success for the competitors. Many bigger, well-sponsored race committees could learn a great deal from the SSANZ (Short handed Sailing Association of New Zealand).


When the results were finalised we could not have done better, winning overall in both PHRF and IRC, as well as our division. Given that the Race was scored on the basis of points for each leg, we were also pleased that we would still have won had a cumulative corrected time basis been used. The 43 year-old houseboat can still do the business when called upon. Well done ‘Sunstone’!



To the left are Vicky’s non-sailing ‘helpers’ for the race. A large ‘expendable’ pillow to make sleeping in our oilies at least slightly comfortable. A timer to make sure we didn’t over-sleep. An Aussie style hat with neckcloth to keep the sun off. Cold coffee drinks, since she doesn’t normally have coffee.


The morning after the Race we found a bottle of Champagne, the real stuff, sitting on the deck. It was a gesture of appreciation of our effort from Ross Bannan who keeps a boat down the dock. After much searching through Vicky’s voluminous records we discovered that (though he didn’t remember) Ross had been one of the first people we met in Westhaven when we first arrived in 1999. We liked him then and this was one more reason to do so. What a kind gesture!





It took several days to sort out the boat and even longer for us to get back to some sense of normality, especially in our sleep routines, which had been thoroughly disrupted. Eventually, however, ‘Sunstone’, became ‘home’ again and we could relax a little – until the next big event.