New Zealand or Bust

The passage from Port Resolution, Vanuatu to Opua, New Zealand was not as painful as I expected. Thanks largely to expert forecasting provided stateside by my Dad, we managed to select a good window of weather to avoid any terrible conditions. Many would claim that an uncharacteristic display of patience was rewarded with a smooth passage, but I prefer to believe that the Pagan God Neptune finally got over the grudge he was carrying against my vessel for our inconsiderate offering of rancid tequila when we crossed the equator nearly nine months ago. Although we managed to avoid foul weather, the seven-day voyage was not without its challenges. For the first six days, we were close-hauled with the starboard rail constantly in the water. This meant that we averaged a staggering seven knots, compared to our normal lackluster pace of three or four knots, but it also was exhausting. Adding to the discomfort, our progress south was accompanied by a rapid drop in the temperature. Our blood has grown thin lazing in the tropics and we donned as much clothing as we could manage to put on to fend off the chill. Bundling up carried its own set of difficulties; wearing wool socks to keep my feet warm might seem like a good idea, but the slippery wooden floor tilted at a 30 degree angle made for a treacherous trip from the bed to the bathroom and often ended with my skating unintended into the galley or nav station. Still, to have completed this much-feared passage without experiencing winds exceeding 25 knots is about as good as we could have hoped for. As usual, Anna summed up the monotony of the trip with the statement “no feesh, no sheeps.” It is true that during the past two weeks we saw neither ships nor sheeps, but that is likely to change this week since New Zealand has an abundance of both. I am told that the population of sheep is far larger than the population of humans in this country. As for ships, New Zealand boasts the most sailboats per capita of any civilized nation. Auckland, known as “The City of Sails,” is home to several dense forests of masts. According to Herman Melville, the term “skyscraper” originally referred to the masts on tall ships. By this definition, Auckland can claim the most impressive skyline of any city in the world. New Zealand is the first country that I have sailed to on this voyage that I had visited previously. In the waning days of 1998, during a Christmas vacation from college, my family spent two weeks touring New Zealand. After a whirlwind tour of the north and south islands, we charted a sailboat in the Bay of Islands – the same place that I made landfall on this trip. The anchorage in the Bay of Islands is beautiful with spectacular volcanic rocks rising out of the water. Impressed by mysterious caves in these rocks, my brother Brian and I set out in the dinghy to explore them up close. Unfortunately, we motored in too close and, before we realized what was happening, the tidal surge pulled us into the cave. As quickly as the wave flowed in, it immediately receded, leaving the dinghy and its hapless operators teetering on barren rocks. Seconds later, another surge came hurtling into the cave, battering the dinghy and pushing us further into the tunnel. This cruel process repeated itself for several minutes as we struggled to figure out a plan of escape. The cave was about seven feet high and the water was gradually rising, although the danger was not immediate. However, the force of each rush of waves pounded both the dinghy and us against the jagged rock wall. Suddenly, after a particularly strong wave, the engine on the dinghy broke off and tumbled into a pool of water. Obviously, the situation was not improving and things looked to get worse before they would get better. Desperate, Brian and I concocted a plan in which he climbed along the wall carrying the painter to the dinghy while I braced the stern. When the next wave came, we dove into the water. He pulled, I pushed, and we both swam like hell. Mercifully, we managed to get the dinghy clear of the surge and pulled ourselves aboard. Rowing back to the boat, we contemplated what story to tell our Dad. We settled on the truth and he was only mildly irate. Luckily, New Zealanders as a people are exceptionally laid back and the good folks at the charter company were no exception. They brought out a new outboard free of charge, although they recommended we avoid caves. Resting at the bottom of the shallow pool, I have no doubt that the engine is still interred in the cave to this day. Upon our arrival in the Bay of Islands, we proceeded to the Customs Wharf in Opua to officially clear into New Zealand. Two officials boarded our boat and scoured our cupboards for contraband. Due to the sensitive ecosystem of this small country, the government is sensitive about introducing threats to wildlife and agriculture. We had expected a thorough search, so we were sure to consume all of our forbidden food. This meant rationing our provisions so that only items produced in New Zealand remained. By the time the agents arrived, our boat was virtually barren and they had to content themselves with confiscating a few lemons, a sweet potato, and some beans. It would be nice if the confiscated food was given to homeless people or at least to some underprivileged sheep, but the truth is that the threatening consumables are incinerated. The Bay of Islands is a sort of Mecca for yachties. This pilgrimage takes place in November each year when sailors from throughout the Pacific converge on New Zealand for shelter during the cyclone season. As the northernmost port of entry and with 144 islands, hundreds of boats flock to the pristine anchorages. As usual, the potential of the bay was recognized first by the indefatigable Captain James Cook, who dryly observed “it affords good anchorage and every kind of refreshments for shipping.” In dire need of any kind of refreshment after several weeks of isolation, we spent our first day in New Zealand enjoying the fruits of developed society. After picking up a mooring, we went ashore and hiked the pretty eight kilometer trail along the waterfront from Opua to the more touristy Paihia. In Paihia, we feasted on a delicious pizza, quaffed an ice cold Steinlager, and savored sweet, sweet ice cream. Life is good in New Zealand.

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