Auckland to Auckland via Auckland Islands:2019




'I think I'd like to sail to the sub-Antarctic Islands.'

'If you need crew, we'll go with you.'


This casual exchange between our friend Charles Bradfield and us led deep into the thorny garden of bureaucracy, but also nearly two years later to a fascinating cruise to a little visited archipelago.


Though we had in the past considered sailing to the Auckland Islands in Sunstone, we had finally dismissed the idea for two reasons. The first is that the lack of protection in Sunstone's cockpit makes voyages into the Southern Ocean 50s too much of a trial for us in our decrepitude. The other is that the governing authority for the Islands, New Zealand's DOC (Department of Conservation), insists that when among the Islands, there are always crew on board to take the vessel safely to sea, should the weather demand it. With only two crew this would make trips ashore not only difficult, but solitary. The alternative prospect of travelling south in the sybaritic comfort of Charles' Cavalier 45, Vingilot, with several other crew was enticing. Vingilot is not only large and comfortable with a powerful engine, but has a hard dodger giving excellent protection to her central cockpit. With Charles as skipper, the two of us comprised the core of the crew, with others joining for parts of the journey.



Obtaining a permit to visit the environmentally sensitive islands is no easy task. DOC requires extensive documentation to show that the vessel and crew are suitable and prepared for the demands of sailing to these remote islands. In addition there are stringent environmental protections which must be observed, including inspections of the vessel and of all the clothing which crew plan to wear ashore. Quite apart from preparing Vingilot for the voyage, Charles also completed a mountain of paperwork to apply for our permit. Our contribution to the preparation was to arrive ten days before departure to undertake final maintenance, stock the boat for six weeks for five crew and stow everything away.









Statistically February and March are the most benign months for weather in the Southern Ocean south of New Zealand. On Thursday 7 February we started south by going north, heading for Cape Reinga, the northern tip of New Zealand. Surprisingly the distance from Auckland to Stewart Island, our initial destination, is little different via either the east or west coasts of New Zealand. The advantage of the west coast route is that it avoids the likelihood of a 150-mile beat from the Otago Peninsula to Stewart Island into strong westerlies.






For the trip south we were joined by Kevin Beaumont and Brendan Thompson, regular crew on Vingilot for local sailing around Auckland. Both were keen to get some offshore passage-making experience. At the last minute we were also joined by Charles' 23-year-old son, Thomas.



For a change the statistical predications proved to be true. We had fair winds, pleasant weather and even some good tuna fishing on a fast passage south. So fast that after only six days we were off Fiordland in the south-west of the South Island. Charles decided that a mini-cruise would fit in with our time constraints. This change of plans became connected to others, as both Thomas and Brendan decided that the demands of Uni and work respectively required their presence back in Auckland. On the other hand, Charles managed to persuade his wife, Joy, to join us at Deep Cove, Doubtful Sound, one of only two places in Fiordland with road access, as most of this huge national park can only be accessed either on foot or by boat.





The scenery in Fiordland is some of the most dramatic on the coastlines of the southern hemisphere, with mountainsides plunging directly into the sea. Naturally this produces some challenging conditions for anchoring, often requiring shore-lines with an anchor in very deep water. Fortunately local fishermen have strung permanent lines in many favourite spots, as in our first anchorage at beautiful Precipice Cove in Bradshaw Sound.






For our motor around to Deep Cove, overnight rain converted the heights to scenes typical of Fiordland, the carpet of forested greenery, slashed by myriad waterfalls. Our crew changes made, a short beat around to Breaksea Sound led to Acheron Passage, past the wonderfully named Wet Jacket Arm, and into Dusky Sound where we anchored in the intimacy of Nook Harbour in Duck Cove. We knew from an earlier visit that blue cod abound there. With Charles and Kevin working their lines at high speed, we soon had a large bucket full and Charles suffered the attention of the numerous sandflies while filleting the lot, ready for dinner.




The following day we paid a brief homage to James Cook, by visiting Pickersgill Harbour, where he anchored Resolution for refit in 1773 and you can see the same tree the crew used as a gangplank.


As the forecast was favourable, we set off the same afternoon toward South West Cape, Stewart Island, one of the world's five great southern capes.








It soon became apparent, that the forecast was only accurate in terms of its north-west direction; its indication of no more than 25kts required multiplication by two. We had a wild ride through the night, at one point registering 19kts on the log, surfing down the face of one of the 5-6 metre waves. Fortunately when we headed up at South West Cape, we also eased under the lee of Stewart Island for an easier sail, surrounded by flocks of albatross, to the entrance of Port Pegasus, one of the least-visited jewels of New Zealand cruising. We only had time for a single night and a brief hike at Evening Cove before moving on to Halfmoon Bay and metropolitan Oban (Pop ~400).






Moorings are at a premium in Halfmoon Bay, but fortunately our previous visit in 2012 at the end of Leg 2 of the Round New Zealand Two-Handed Race (RNZ), had provided Charles and us with a wealth of hospitable Oban friends and thus a convenient mooring. In addition we hoped to be able to assist committee members of SSANZ (Short-Handed Sailing Association of New Zealand) in finishing Leg 2 of the 2019 RNZ Race. As it turned out, time pressures for us and a slow leg for the racing fleet meant that we were only able to help with finishing the first boat and eventual winner, Titanium.




After a suitably social and very pleasant stay in Oban, we headed 25nm north across Foveaux Strait to Bluff where we collected Simon Mitchell, who through his contacts had been influential in helping Charles obtain our permit to visit the Auckland Islands. Though he had served as a doctor in the Royal New Zealand Navy, Simon is not a sailor, but an expert diver who had spent considerable time on the Islands, both diving on some of the many wrecks and doing research on the wildlife which abounds there.


On Monday 24 February at Bluff, we had our pre-departure briefing and inspection from a DOC representative, Joseph Roberts. As we had spent a day in Oban carefully picking any vestige of foreign matter from our clothing and gear, even down to the patches of velcro, we passed through the inspection without problems.





Bluff is not a yacht-friendly port, its berthing more suited to fishing boats and the whole harbour swept by fierce tides. We were therefore delighted that the forecast was once again favourable for an immediate start on the 250nm passage south to Enderby Island, the most northern of the Auckland Islands group. This time the forecast proved correct and less than 40 hours of fast sailing later, having braved a line of a dozen huge trawlers crossing our track, we were bouncing through the heavy overfalls at the eastern end of Enderby and turning along its south coast to anchor in Sandy Bay.





Unlike the main Auckland Island, which is mountainous and has an eastern coast heavily indented with fjords, Enderby appears quite flat despite its mostly rocky, cliff-edged coastline. The bright yellow sand of the beach at Sandy Bay is a marked contrast to the rocks everywhere else. Here too are about the only signs of current human life in the whole island group. There are some small white huts above the beach which house the DOC staff and volunteers who come to the island in summer to monitor the fauna and flora as well as continuing the battle to return the islands to their original ecosystem, free of invasive species. This battle has been largely won on Enderby and Adams Islands, but is still ongoing on the much larger Auckland Island.





Though our visit coincided with one by a small French cruise ship, its passengers were confined to visit only the short boardwalk and the beach in Sandy Bay. By contrast, over the next three days we took turns hiking right around Enderby. This was fascinating, but far from easy. Simon recounted that when there were still rabbits and cows on the island, their grazing kept its vegetation like a golf course. The return to its natural state meant the vigorous growth of both megaherbs and tussock grass, both of which make hiking less than easy over a landscape otherwise very like moorland.





However, as we picked our careful way through the tussock grass it was hard to keep our eyes on our feet. There were rare but shy yellow-eyed penguins to be spotted. The Island is a royal albatross nesting area and there were huge birds sitting quietly on nests almost beside our route, with the occasional chick to be seen. Overhead there was a constant passage of albatross and giant petrels. On the cliffs of the north side of the island there were even the rare light-mantled sooty albatross. We first saw these in flight and then Simon and Vicky spotted three chicks almost hidden by their camouflage on a rocky cliff ledge. Occasionally the bright green and contrasting red of the red-crested parakeets was spotted in the low scrub.












Though there are some fur seals, the most numerous species of the Island is the New Zealand sealion. We had arrived just after the end of the mating season, when the southern and eastern beaches would have been filled with the combat of huge bulls protecting their harems. By March most of the sealions had retired to the grassy slopes. Some females were teaching their pups to swim and we still saw many moving out from the beaches to feed or to play in the surf.





Our anchorage at Sandy Bay was generally well-protected from the east through north to the west. However, when winds came in from the south-west it was best to move, which we did for one night to Erebus Cove further west in Port Ross. This cove and the adjoining Terror Cove were the sites of one of the attempts at a colonising settlement on Auckland Island. A small group of British settlers vainly tried to scratch a living from the challenging landscape. After only three years the attempt failed and the only sign of it now is the burial ground which DOC preserves. The graves include both settlers and some of the many mariners who lost their lives among the islands. In contrast to most of Enderby, much of the coast of Auckland Island is overgrown with thick rata forest. Even after its bright red spring and summer blooms have faded the rata present a colourful mosaic when blessed with early morning sunshine.




Though Enderby was the focus of our trip, it seemed a shame to come so far without exploring the coast of Auckland Island further. So on 2 March we had a delightful sail south along the east coast. DOC severely limits the number of sites at which landing is permitted and several of these do not have well-protected anchorages close by. We knew therefore that any visit to Carnley Harbour in the south would be a limited one. Along the coast we poked into Waterfall Bay to investigate the pool at its head as a possible anchorage. Though very kelpy, it was a beautiful and sheltered spot, but we headed on toward Carnley.




As we turned the corner at Cape Farr to sail through the five-mile-long entrance, we were hit by 25kt winds funnelling between the heights straight along the passage. These rose rapidly to gale force. Fortunately Vingilot's powerful engine allowed us to short tack our way very slowly up the passage in the hope that the winds would ease once properly into the Harbour. They did not, at least not until we reached the lee of Camp Cove, where we anchored in relative peace.







Considering that these were the conditions in quite settled weather, it was clear that any longer stay in Carnley would be demanding, with few chances to get ashore in our inflatable dinghy. We decided that honour had been satisfied in reaching Camp Cove and we would head back to Sandy Bay the following day. The conditions for our departure were a repeat of the previous day, though we were fortunately sailing downwind. However, they were if anything worse as the strong winds and williwaws extended around Cape Farr and some way up the east coast. As we headed north we were hit by several gusts of over 50kts shrieking down from the cliffs. We were delighted to get a little further out to sea in steadier and somewhat lighter winds as we beat north and skirted the offshore rocks and islands to reach Sandy Bay once more.



One of the problems of visiting remote places in the higher latitudes is that the summer season is so short and the weather volatile. If one's time is limited, as ours was, shortly after arrival it is necessary to start looking for a weather window to depart. When that window comes it must be taken. During our stay the winds had been almost unvarying northerlies, which was fine for our visit, but not for our return. However, after only eight days in the islands our window arrived, so after a final run ashore we said goodbye to the fauna of Enderby Island and to the DOC staff who had been so helpful during our visit and set sail for Oban on Thursday 7 March.


When we passed through the overfalls off the east end of the Island during our arrival they had been impressive, but we had been running with the wind and waves. When we departed it was a different story. With tide running strongly into the wind over the very uneven, shallow bottom we ran the gauntlet of a cauldron of waves. At times Vingilot's 20 ton hull seemed ready to stand on its stern as it climbed the steep breakers and slammed down the other side. Even with a good breeze and full engine power there were times when Charles could barely keep way on. Though it seemed longer, half an hour of this pounding saw us through to deeper, calmer water and we settled down to a fast reach through the afternoon and night, with the wind slowly easing through the next day. Friday evening saw us back on our borrowed mooring in Oban.



The following day Simon and Kevin headed back to Auckland, leaving Charles and us to enjoy a brief interlude of three days gentle cruising in Paterson Inlet, while easterlies blew themselves out. However, the weather gods were smiling and it was clear that we had an excellent opportunity soon to head north for our passage back to Auckland - the city, not the island. With luck it appeared that the favourable weather would carry us up the east coast at least as far north as Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula south of Christchurch. There even appeared to be a possibility that the settled spell would allow us to get all the way back without stopping. In the fatalistic manner of sailors everywhere we regarded this possibility as a fairy tale, but still wished that it might come true.





We were especially hopeful of kind conditions as we would be heading north with only Charles and the two of us aboard. We filled Vingilot's diesel tanks and Charles had a final meal of Stewart Island fish and chips. On Wednesday 13 March we sailed away with a moderate and fair wind headed for the eastern end of the Otago Peninsula, where we would turn north. With the protection of Vingilot's hard dodger and a watch scheme of two on and four off, even with strong winds watches were not taxing. Once we turned the corner at Taiaroa Head the winds gradually eased, but came forward. We spent a night tacking fruitlessly back and forth and dodging cruise ships just south of the Banks Peninsula waiting for the wind to shift to the south-east.


The same night we heard the news on the radio of the terrorist massacre at the two mosques in nearby Christchurch. This was New Zealand's first direct experience of this kind. The immediate, sympathetic and supportive response of both the government and the whole country was striking and was widely praised. For us it also confirmed why we love New Zealand and are proud to call it home.



After a period of motor sailing, the south-easterly filled gradually on Saturday morning off the Kaikoura coast, giving us some good, fast reaching past Cook Strait and the Wairarapa coast. We had thought we might need to make a fuel stop at Gisborne, but the solid easterly carried us right up to East Cape by Monday evening, where we turned into the home strait to cross the Bay of Plenty in the steadily easing wind. In the wee hours of Wednesday 20 March we motored into Westhaven Marina in Auckland and put both Vingilot and ourselves to bed.






We had not expected to make the passage north so easily in a single week, having assumed that we would have to stop either for contrary winds or fuel. Overall, we had sailed 3066 miles in 41 days, circumnavigating the three main islands of New Zealand and visiting one of its most isolated and fascinating outposts in the far south. The fact that we had no significant breakages or problems in some challenging conditions was a tribute to Vingilot and to Charles' preparation and outfitting of her. His unfailing good humour and tolerance of two cranky geriatrics added to our delight to be along for the ride.