Our trip to New Zealand is 2,500 miles non-stop, our longest leg so far. Will we be able to stay clear of depressions and hurricanes?
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Maupiti (PYF) – Opua (NZL)
“I took the gennaker down again,” Floris says when Ivar takes over the watch at four in the morning. He does not hide his disappointment. “The first hour or so I hand-steered and reached the whopping speed of two knots, but soon the wind completely disappeared.” “It is what it is”, Ivar sighs and climbs into the cockpit. The sea around him is a flat as a mirror that slowly moves up and down due to a long swell. It causes our boat to roll back and forth and the bunch of bananas hanging from the mizzen mast’s boom to swing from side to side. Ivar secures it with an extra line and then nestles himself in the corner of the cockpit. There is no moon, but the night sky is alight with the milky way’s countless stars. The sight takes Ivar’s breath away. A shooting star disrupts the serene scene. “My wish is for some more wind” Ivar thinks. Does he realize what he is asking for?
Hurricanes and Depressions
After two weeks at sea we are still nowhere near halfway. It was early November when we finally got permission to sail to New Zealand. Almost immediately after our visa arrived, we left French Polynesia for the 2,500-mile-trip across the South Pacific. Hurricane season in this part of the world usually starts in December, but this year is a “La Niña” year. That means that the seawater around here is still relatively cold. As a result, the centre of gravity for this year’s hurricane season is further west, closer to Fiji, and it is not expected to reach our path until January. That means the risk to be hit by a hurricane on the way is very small.
When we departed we counted on stable easterly trade winds. At the same time, we knew to expect depressions closer to New Zealand. The area is infamous for the rapidly moving low pressure systems that come from the sea separating Australia and New Zealand – the Tasman Sea – and move westward. Will they turn the last bit of our trip into a nail-biter?
For the moment, it’s very calm. Too calm. We expected some light weather en route, but not such long periods without wind. Only during the first few days there was some gusty wind, but it quickly decreased to almost nothing. We went from sailing to floating, because we use our engine as little as possible. Out of principle – we are a sailboat, after all – and we do not have enough fuel to cover long distances anyway. Instead, we wait for wind. As a result, 14 days into our trip, we have only covered 800 miles. At the same time, every day that we just float, hurricane season gets closer. Doubt gradually sets in and we start to wonder if it was wise to leave this late in the year.
When will the wind return?
We wait for wind with all sails down
Help the bananas are ripe
When our moods are at their lowest, the promise of a high-pressure area – courtesy of the latest weather forecast – saves the day. It creates a constant south-easterly wind, force 4 to 5. We hoist all sails and move again. On a beam-reach course we obtain high speeds, so three days in a row we cover about 150 miles per 24 hours. Our hurricane concerns fade into the background. Hoping for a continuation of the favourable winds, we routinely retrieve the latest grib files and weather charts. “There is a depression over Tonga that is rapidly deepening”, Ivar says, concerned. “It looks like it will cross our path.” At first, it looks like we can evade the worst of it by sailing south of its core. That would leave us with the favourable wind direction and keep us out of the sector with the strongest winds. But then that hope evaporates. When we download new weather charts, the US weather service NOAA has added the word “gale” next to the core of the depression. They expect a real storm. In addition, the depression is now predicted to move faster and deepen further, causing more wind. “There is no escape,” Ivar concludes. Do we have to deal with a hurricane after all?
We turn our concerns into action and prepare Luci for the approaching storm. We stow the flexible solar panels below deck. We hoist our small cutter jib and furl in the genoa firmly. We close all deck hatches tightly and place a lid over a ventilation shaft. We store all loose items in the cabin and put a safety line on the oil lamp. Ivar cooks a pasta for a few days and fills the tea and coffee thermos bottles. To be on the safe side, Floris also checks the grab bag. A few hours later we can’t come up with anything else to do. The latest weather report forecasts an average wind speed of more than 40 knots for our location, gusting to 60. We have never had so much wind on the open sea. How will Luci hold up? And we? We barely sleep, waiting for the weather to come.
In the early morning we feel the wind picking up from the northeast. We lower our reefed mainsail and leave only our small cutter jib made of extra thick dacron. We position our wind vane Herbie to keep the wind from behind. It means that we’re running with the wind while Lucipara 2 rides on rapidly rising waves that come from behind before overtaking us. Heavy showers hit us and gusts are getting stronger. Our anemometer no longer works, but we estimate the strength of the gusts to be well above 50 knots. Herbie has a surprisingly good control over Luci, helped by the amount of wind pressure and a boat speed of 5-6 knots. The tightened cutter jib also seems to help keep the bow downwind. Ivar is on high alert in the cockpit, ready to take the helm when Luci unexpectedly moves sideways across the massive, breaking waves. Fortunately, that is not necessary. Cutter jib and Herbie turn out to be an excellent team in the midst of nature’s show of force.
The peak of the storm sticks to daylight hours and doesn’t reach hurricane strength, but we’re not there yet. In the evening we end up at the other side of the storm. A strong westerly wind of around 25 knots, again more in gusts, together with a high swell from the northeast, make for extremely confused waves and a nauseating washing machine effect. We first try to sail upwind, until Floris bounces out of his bunk. Then we decide to heave-to, which gives relative comfort. It is not until well into the next day that the wind changes further and decreases somewhat. The sun also shows itself again! We can go back to heading to New Zealand and are relieved that thanks to our strong steel lady we have weathered the most violent storm to date in glorious fashion.
Speeding on a beam-reach course
The NOAA gale forecast
No escape from the strongest winds according to the GRIB forecast
Our heavy duty cutter jib helps to keep the bow downwind
The waves grow quickly during the storm
Herbie our windvane firmly steers us downwind
Heaving-to provides some relative comfort
We pass the International Date Line almost exactly around midnight on December 4. “How is it possible that we cross the date line exactly now!” Floris shouts. Ivar gives him a puzzled look. “Officially the clock goes back an hour here, but at the same time the date also goes forward one day. We are no longer 11 hours behind, but 12 hours ahead of the Netherlands. Here it is already December 6, and so we completely missed Sinterklaas eve”, he explains. Fortunately, we can always decide to stick to “board time”, which we determine ourselves. Instead of implementing the date change, we adhere to Tahiti time until Opua. Incidentally, it allows us to celebrate Sinterklaas, with poems and homemade speculaas.
“Lucipara 2, Lucipara 2, this is Orion Border Patrol”, we suddenly hear out of the VHF. Dumbfounded, we look at the AIS and around us, but see nothing. “Vrrrommmm” it sounds above us. It is a New Zealand Coast Guard patrol aircraft. Its radio commander politely asks us a long list of questions while the aircraft circles around the boat. After the interview, they remind us that New Zealand’s borders are closed, yet wish us a good trip to Opua. As a farewell greeting, they fly directly over us before tipping one wing and zooming away. Soon they are out of sight and we are all alone again. It feels like we are finally getting close to the finish line, even though we still have 400 miles to go.
Just in Time
Thanks to another large high-pressure area that appeared after the depression, we have sunny and calm weather. It also keeps the next deep depression over the Tasman Sea at bay, but only for a few days. We decide that one storm was enough and occasionally turn on the engine for some extra speed. Just when we approach the Bay of Islands at dusk, grey clouds signalling the approaching front are moving in. As darkness falls, we sail up the well-lit river towards Opua and arrive in the shelter of the land. Strong gusts of wind make mooring Luci to the quarantine pontoon quite challenging, but all lines are set when the wind reaches its peak force and rain clatters down on the cabin. Below, we celebrate that we made it, after thirty days at sea!
Time for Maintenance
Although it’s almost midnight, we are too excited to sleep. Never before have we had a passage with so much light weather and such a violent storm. The experience has strengthened our confidence in Luci. At the same time, after sailing more than 29,000 miles, our boat needs quite some maintenance. It means that we will not be sailing for the next six months, but will give her a well-deserved, major refit. At the same time, we are looking forward to meeting familiar and new people, and finding more inspiring sustainable solutions in New Zealand.
Mini Sinterklaas celebration with homemade speculaas and poems
A high pressure area brings some wind
The Orion from the New Zealand Coastguard is circling us