Annie Hill tackles strong winds and fierce eddies while getting to know her new boat and spectacular cruising ground in New Zealand
Annie Hill rides out a blizzard during her New Zealand solo sail
I’d decided to put down some roots in New Zealand and needed my own boat, but the strength of the NZ dollar meant my savings were worth considerably less than I’d anticipated. At last I found Joshua, a 1985 Raven 26, which ticked many of my boxes. Admittedly she was a bit run down and poorly maintained, but she had a full-width cabin, which allowed an attractive interior, an excellent galley and a comfortable saloon. Although she was over budget, she was so close to what I wanted that it seemed worth paying the extra.
With my usual impeccable timing I finalised the deal in early winter and had to sail the 90 miles from Picton, where I’d found her, to Nelson where I planned to live. This meant going by way of the infamous Cook Strait, less than three weeks from the shortest day of the year. I felt I should start as I intended to go on, so turned down the generous offers to accompany me. A friend drove me to Picton, with lots of gear absent from the boat’s inventory.
We emptied the car and got the boat ready: loosening an almost-seized gate valve, tightening the stern gland, checking the batteries and filling up the gas bottle, then my friend drove off into the gloaming. My boat seemed cold, scruffy and unwelcoming and I had a bad dose of buyer’s remorse. I lit the one working burner and boiled a kettle, poured myself a large tot of whisky and topped it up with hot water. By the time I had drunk it things were looking better.
After dinner, I got out the Cruising Guide
to plan my passage. The first obstacle was Cape Jackson – the local Cape Horn – then I had to navigate French Pass. I read about these with some misgivings:
‘Cape Jackson... naturally exposed to all winds... quite a hurdle to boat users... conditions can be most uncomfortable and dangerous.’ Of French Pass, I read: ‘dangerous to attempt to travel against the stream unless the boat is easily capable of at least 9 knots under power... the vessel can swing into the counter current and the boat be slewed in to the shore.’ Then the Beef Barrels: ‘notorious for having caused many wrecks... frequently difficult to see.’
Did I want to do this? I briskly reminded myself that pilots are always pessimistic; that I learnt to sail in Morecambe Bay with 7-knot tides and no engine; that I’d successfully navigated in many poorly charted places. But I was still daunted. I poured another hot toddy and, carefully working out the tides for the next few days, considered my options. With a rough plan sketched out, I snuggled into my sleeping bag, pleased to find my bunk really comfortable.
The next morning the broker came by and offered me many not-too-reassuring tips for getting round Cape Jackson with boat and life intact.
The forecast was dreadful, but if I didn’t leave now I never would, so with my heart in my mouth, I started the engine. The single-cylinder Bukh eventually coughed into life and settled down to a reassuring thump. I nearly got myself into trouble having temporarily forgotten that the foward-facing gear lever went down for astern and up for forward: not exactly intuitive, but soon we were chugging away from all the expensive boats towards the Marlborough Sounds.
A few other boats around gave moral support, and the odd shaft of sun broke through the heavy overcast sky, creating a brief sparkle on the water. I set the jib for the south-easterly Force 3 and headed north-east up the sound. The boat had an autopilot, which did a fine job of holding the tiller for me when I wanted to do something else. The wind was fluky and the ferries between Picton and Wellington seemed to come past every few minutes.
Occasionally the wind died and I’d start the engine. The forecast wasn’t improving and I wanted to get to a secure mooring before all hell broke loose.
By mid-morning, Tory Channel was abeam and at noon I bore away into Endeavour Inlet to find a mooring. The one I’d intended to borrow was occupied so I prepared to anchor, but the two men on board beckoned me alongside, hospitably putting out fenders.
“We’re going off soon,” said one, “so you might as well pick up the mooring.”
They were surprised to find me alone and bound for Nelson. “That’s a gutsy trip to do single-handed,” commented the
skipper. I felt rather pleased with myself. Later they set off across the inlet to where they could row ashore to watch rugby.
I reflected on my 12-mile passage. The engine and autopilot had been excellent and the jib did its thing satisfactorily: I’d been pleased at the way the boat had sailed under jib alone. She could be left for a few moments without having hysterics, which was very reassuring: with her short fin keel and balanced spade rudder she might well have been skittish. I sat in the cockpit, enjoying the lovely bay, with bellbirds singing all around until the cold drove me below.
I spent the afternoon sorting things out and cooked myself quite a feast. Keeping busy and eating hot food distracted me from the atrocious forecast, but I reckoned I’d be going nowhere in the morning.
When I woke I turned on the shipping forecast. It was ghastly: 55 knots, occasionally more in ‘Cook’, which is where I was headed. I listened to the actuals: 67 knots at Brothers a mere 15 miles away as the shag flies. I decided to stay put.
For a while, we were wonderfully sheltered and the sun came out, but soon the wind was tumbling down the hills, chasing us around the mooring. The sun vanished and a cold, thin drizzle set in. The wind gusted down the hatch and I felt chilled, depressed and rather lonely.
When snow started eddying into the cabin I wondered what on earth I was doing there: alone on a remote mooring in the middle of winter, with no heater. A few more clothes and some hot food improved things; if I wasn’t exactly cosy, at least I was no longer cold. I read until dark, when I was very happy to climb into my warm bed. It was blowing 75 knots at Brothers. It was wonderfully snug to know I was secure while the wind howled overhead.
I was up at first light and had a hearty breakfast. The forecast was 30 knots and easing. If I wanted to make the tide at Cape Jackson, I’d better get moving, so at 0745, I cast off the mooring and motored out of Pukekoikoi Bay. Overhead the sky was a clear blue and cats paws dashed across the water all around. The actual wind at Brothers was southerly, 20 knots, and soon the coast would fall away so that I could see Brothers Island, and find my breeze. We chugged on up the west shore, but once out of its lee, I was surprised and disappointed to find it almost calm. I needed to get past Cape Jackson to keep my tide fair so carried on motoring. The autopilot did its stuff and I admired the scenery while drinking coffee and wondering at how different two days could be. The sun was almost hot! Considering it was the first day of June, it hardly seemed like winter.
At 1035 the log read: ‘Cape Jackson aka Cape Horn abeam! Hardly any wind and overfalls merely interesting. What a relief!’
By midday a breeze came in from the west and for a while we sailed happily along on a close reach. The breeze increased and I put a reef in the mainsail.
As I brought Joshua abeam, the wind came in from ahead and we were unlikely to make 11 miles dead to windward in four hours. I debated going elsewhere, but the timing for French Pass was critical, so I dropped the mainsail, rolled up the jib and turned on the engine. It made short work of Force 4 on the nose and we made surprisingly good speed, picking up a mooring in Catherine’s Cove at 1555, another 35 miles on our way.
I felt a sense of elation. Cape Jackson was astern, we were out of Cook Strait and French Pass was just around the corner. A friend had given me a bottle of bubbly to celebrate my new command and this seemed a suitable time to open it. As the low sun reflected back off the water, I toasted my little ship.
I was up at 0600, and at 0715 it was light enough to get under way. It was flat calm and, according to the tide tables, we arrived 15 minutes early, but the tide still ran strongly against us in the narrows. The water swirled and eddied round underwater rocks and hidden obstructions. The engine did its best, but we seemed to mark time. At last the Pass relented and we were allowed through, the bow swinging this way and that as the fierce eddies caught us. As we came out from Current Basin, a northerly Force 2 filled in and I set the jib.
With my worries now behind me, I was starting to enjoy myself, but the wind was fickle, so for the rest of the day we motored, sailed and motorsailed in the sunshine, with the whole of Tasman Bay to ourselves. At 1730 I coasted into my marina berth in Nelson, feeling ridiculously proud of myself to have brought my new boat back without drama.
‘When snow started eddying into the cabin I wondered what I was doing there’
Joshua featured a Bermuda rig when Annie Hill bought the boat
The Marlborough Sounds are at the north of New Zealand’s South Island
LEFT Strong eddies through French Pass which separates D’Urville Island from the mainland to its south
Endeavour Inlet at the northern end of Queen Charlotte Sound
TOP Heading past Cape Jackson LEFT Blizzard conditions in Pukekoikoi Bay
It’s snug in Joshua’s galley and saloon while wind is howling outside