By John Welsford - Hamilton, New Zealand


A Shake-down Cruise

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New Zealand is a windy part of the world, and labour weekend in our blustery springtime with the spite and attempts of winter to get in the last word as she leaves, is notorious for bad weather. But it's the first long weekend of the season, and lots of people go sailing, if only to sit galebound in an anchorage somewhere.

The area where this story from Frank Bates, owner of the Pathfinder, 'Varuna' is set has a number of automatic "nowcasting" weather stations. One can dial them up on radio and listen to actual conditions, and it is possible to track the progress of a storm front through the islands of the Hauraki Gulf by listening to the wind speed increases as it hits each nowcast station in sucession.

Bean Rock light is one of those weather stations. Situated in the entrance to the Waitemata harbour it gives critical information for those sailing home from the Outer Islands and as such is one that means a lot when in the situation such as the one that Varuna found herself in that windy weekend.

John Welsford, designer, Pathfinder number 1 " Varuna"

Like many New Zealanders, the Labour Day long weekend at the end of October feels like the symbolic start of summer to me. In fact, the late autumn and early summer here are often full of stormy weather systems rolling up from the Southern Ocean, and this year is proving no exception.

This year my wife Barb and I decided to take an extra couple of days off, and have a shakedown cruise in our PathfinderVaruna’. The long range weather forecast was promising windy conditions but with five days available we decided to head off, keep a close watch on the weather and plan our trip around what developed.

Our original plan had been to sail North from Auckland on Friday morning, along with the large fleet of yachts setting off on the Coastal Classic, an annual race 120 miles north up the coast between Auckland and Russell. We did this last year and had a great sail up the coast for 15 miles in a freshening southwester. We were being overtaken all morning by the yachts in the race; at the head of the fleet the eventual winner of line honours, a giant 55 foot yellow catamaran called X-Factor was a spectacular sight rocketing past us with spray smoking off the bows. In the early afternoon we veered off to spend the night camped a little way up the Mahurangi River and then spent a superb couple of days sailing and camping around the islands in the area. We scurried home on Monday with towering black storm clouds chasing us down the gulf.

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Last year we spend a superb couple of days camping and sailing in the Hauraki Gulf.

The forecast this year was promising 30 knots for race morning, so we modified our plans a bit.

Thursday lunchtime found us at the launch ramp casting off on a day that was mostly sunny, but punctuated with showers rolling in from the SW. We motored out through the moorings, and then set sail for our first way-point, the Bean Rock lighthouse which stands in the entrance to Auckland Harbour.

There was little breeze and we sailed slowly down wind towards the Motuhie Channel about 5 miles off. Occasional showers of cold rain were a mixed blessing, with the wind picking up for a while as each one got close. It was great to be out sailing again, and we were making steady if slow progress.

The Motuihe Channel had its smiley face on today, it is notorious for nasty steep waves with the wind against the tide. By the time we got there the SW wind had started to pick up a bit and become steady. Once we rounded the NE point of Waiheke Island the rugged North coast of the island offered plenty of places where we could get shelter from the strong SW winds expected overnight. This coast is deeply indented with bays and coves, sandy beaches, rocky cliffs and reefs all along. Not a great place for any boat in a northerly, but it's a paradise for small boat cruisers and fishermen in good conditions.

Our destination 6 miles further on was Garden Cove, a little jewel of a bay deeply indented into the island with a golden sandy beach and rough and steep farmland rising behind.

Our first way-point: the Bean Rock lighthouse which stands in the entrance to Auckland Harbour.

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The entrance is a narrow gap between a rock and the shore. By the time we got near the wind had picked up to about 20 kts, the showers had become heavy and squally, so we were happy to get through the little gap and into shelter. Once we did it was like a switch had been flicked, the sun came out again almost perfectly on cue, we were out of the wind and swell, and we were happy campers.

After going ashore for a while to stretch our legs, we anchored just off the beach, got the tent set up on the boat, and settled back to enjoy the peace and quiet. We had the cove to ourselves, the billy boiling on the stove, and all was well with the world.

During the night the wind got up and some heavy showers of rain gave the tent it's first real test; by the early hours of the morning we were being buffeted by strong gusts and very pleased to be in such a snug anchorage. The morning revealed a beautiful sunny day, with a strong SW blowing. We decided we would stay put for the day and spent the morning ashore, exploring the hills and the coastline. This is a very rugged rocky shoreline, with steep slopes of rough farmland, bush and scrub tumbling down to little shingly beaches, interspersed with rocky points and reefs. My thought’s kept wandering back to the fishing gear still safely stowed back on the boat, maybe next time.

Back on board we had a late lunch and spent a lazy afternoon reading and sleeping in the warm sunshine. The thought that it was a working day only added to the enjoyment.

We were joined in the cove later that evening by a forty foot flying-bridge launch and smaller fishing boat. It was very calm in the bay overnight, but got quite cold in the early morning.

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Garden Cove: a little jewel of a bay deeply indented into the island with a golden sandy beach and rough and steep farmland rising behind.

The next day we had to make a choice. We could continue on around Waiheke Island, and then down it's sheltered East coast towards some of our favourite sailing and camping spots. The other option was to return towards home, and spend a night or two in some of the sheltered bays around the islands along that way. Listening to the weather forecast soon convinced us that we should opt for the much shorter second option. There were strong winds promised by nightfall, and 25 knots for each of the next couple of days as well.

We set off in warm sunny conditions with thoughts of a picnic lunch at the Noises, a group of small islands about 8 miles to the NE.

The wind and weather were coming from the SW, and we should have taken a bit more notice of the gradually rising wind and some black clouds dumping rain as they moved slowly towards us over the islands. We were sailing along nicely, close hauled in a steady breeze, and by the time it suddenly occurred to me that reefing might be a good idea it was too late to do much more than sail the boat. We soon had to round up into the wind and drop the main. It's moments like this that you appreciate lazy jacks, a simple rig and two masts. We were soon sailing again under mizzen and jib, but thoughts of our picnic lunch had disappeared with the sunshine. We sailed on to Rakino Island, and then motored into Sandy Bay for a brew up and some lunch.

By now it was a different day, with some very strong gusts of wind so our first objective was finding somewhere sheltered to spend the night. Rakino Island itself offered some possibilities but after a short trip across the Rakino Channel the east coast of Motutapu Island would also offer several good sheltered bays and a long rocky coastline where we could get in close sheltered by the land. With the strong winds forecast for the next few days the only likely looking window of opportunity for the last leg back home to Auckland would be the following night when a 15 knot Westerly was predicted. We decided we should try to cover as much of the remaining trip today, and thought Islington Bay would probably be the best outcome; but were prepared to stop anywhere suitable along the way if the conditions deteriated.

We spent the next hour or so motoring across the channel and down the island where all of the bays already had groups of boats settled in for the night. The only real obstacle now between us and Islington Bay was Emu Point. Rounding this point at the south end of Islington Bay would expose us to the full force of the wind and waves sweeping down a 6 mile stretch of open harbour that leads back to Auckland. We crept up to the point close in to the shore, sheltered by the high cliffs, and decided to carry on; and other than being a bit bumpy and wet we had no problems and were soon in the shelter of the bay; relieved to be able to stop and get settled in for what was promising to be a rough night.

In the shelter of Islington Bay; relieved to be able to stop and get settled in for what was promising to be a rough night.

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Islington Bay is a deep V formed by the shorelines of Motutapu and Rangitoto Islands, and we crept in as close as we could to the Rangitoto shore and anchored in the lee of the land. There were probably 30 other boats already at anchor here with more arriving as the day died. We were getting blown around at anchor in the strong gusts of wind and several times during the night I thought the tent would get blown off the boat. In the morning the gusts were howling through, and we were in no hurry to get the day started. We lay in bed reading and dozing most of the morning. The forecast for the day was for the wind to drop by evening to 20 knots, and then change to a 15kt Westerly during the night. I started monitoring automated wind readings broadcast on VHF; the three closest stations were reporting average wind speeds close to 40 knots at 11am, with a peak gust of over fifty knots reported from one of them. We decided we would wait where we were until the average at Bean Rock dropped to below 20 knots, and then pack up and see if the conditions outside the bay would let us get back home.

Just after midday we were blown off our anchor. I looked out of the tent during a big gust and discovered we were drifting rapidly downwind onto a large launch anchored behind us. Luckily one of the people on the launch saw us coming and fended us off their bow before we hit them. I got the motor running and we anchored again even closer in to the shoreline. Our anchor had pulled gently out of the mud after 20 hours, and the thought that it could have just as easily have happened in the middle of the night while we were asleep was a sobering one.

During the afternoon the wind in the bay dropped off markedly, but there were still strong gusts blasting through regularly, and the sea outside the bay was wild with whitecaps.

By 3:00 pm the wind at Bean Rock had dropped to 30 knots, at 8:00 it was 22 knots, and finally at 10pm it had fallen 19. We packed the tent up, reefed the main and set off at about 11:00pm. It became apparent as soon as we cleared the bay that it was going to be a very long night if we attempted the trip under sail, so we started the motor. There were about 6 miles to cover directly upwind, but the wind and waves had dropped sufficiently to make it a relatively comfortable trip. We took quite a bit of spray over the bow, but had wrapped up in all our gear so stayed warm. By 1:30 am we had the boat ashore and unrigged, and an hour later were crawling thankfully into a warm bed at home.

When I finally opened a bleary eye in the middle of the morning, the wind was buffeting the house and it was raining hard. Bean Rock was reporting gusts around 50 knots; it felt good to be home.

This turned out to be a pretty good shakedown cruise, and we both enjoyed getting away in the boat again.

We had a 30 hour stretch aboard, and were still talking to each other at the end of it. We encountered winds stronger than we would usually choose to be sailing in, the tent stayed up, we didn't break anything and learnt a couple of timely lessons. I will be paying much more attention to setting the anchor properly when we sleep aboard in future, and adding a couple of metres more chain to it as well. We will also be watching deteriorating weather much more closely, and reefing early. The squall that caught us out was onto us before I even considered we might need to shorten the sail.

Bring on that summer weather :-)

Frank Bates

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