Monday, November 12, 2012

Treacherous waters - NZ

The passage from Minerva Reef to New Zealand is not a long one in terms of ocean passages, but it has had treacherous history. A well-known tale that adds to the trepidation is that of what is known as the Queen's Birthday Storm. On the Queen's birthday in 1994, a number of boats and lives were lost in severe weather. Weather systems and fronts march up on a regular basis from the lower latitudes through the Tasman Sea and over North New Zealand and passage makers usually get hit with at least one of these on their way south.

Another possibly more severe weather situation along this stretch can be encountered when a depression (a low) moves down from the northeast and pushes up against a high, creating what is called a squash zone. Some may not know that the lows in the Southern Hemisphere rotate clockwise and the highs anticlockwise (opposite of what happens in the Northern Hemisphere) and their winds move around them respectively. What happens in a squash zone is that both winds come together and are squashed between the two counter-rotating systems and speed up. Not necessarily a bad situation unless both systems intensify.

We cut our stay short at Minerva because we were seeing on the weather reports that in fact a low was moving down from the north and New Zealand was experiencing a high so our strategy was to get as far south as possible by the time the low arrived. So there was a mass exodus of all 12 boats from the Reef on a November 4th morning even though it was glassy calm.

We motored, not the preferred means of propulsion for the purist of sailors, and witnessed the presence of Tongan Navy boats presumably guarding the territory from Fiji. We motored and motor-sailed for the first 18 hours then the winds finally picked up. And picked up. And picked up, till by the 7th, we were in a full gale with gusts over 40 knots (that's 80 km/hr or 50 m/hr for land lubbers).


What had developed was the low moved down from the north and really intensified, meaning the winds around it were very strong. And to make matters worse, the high over New Zealand didn't move off the east as expected, but parked itself there and it too intensified. We were in the squash zone, and a mighty strong one at that.

Even though this was our strongest winds we have experienced to date, we weren't stressed. Our heavy weather experiences have been dealt to us in ever increasing intensities so we have learned gradually that Sea Turtle can take it, and us too!

The worst of it was breaking seas, lasting about 12 hours. Our boat is normally a dry boat, meaning its flared bows break the waves to the sides resulting in fewer waves over the decks. But not in these conditions. We had many waves washing completely over the decks, at times a foot deep! We got many splashes into the cockpit and got mildly pooped only once (an actual breaking wave swamping the cockpit). Which is unusual for a center cockpit that is relatively high. The only casualties we had were from various illusive leaks.

We were flying only a small staysail through it all, making good speed, and had everything battened down. We felt very secure as we watched and listened to Sea Turtle answer each crashing wave with stalwartness. As the winds gradually subsided, the sea waves started to organize themselves into swells that were close together with deep valleys between. Jordan would watch for hours with amazement as Sea Turtle rode along and over each one as stable as can be.

Throughout this time, we monitored certain Ham/SSB radio frequencies at certain prescribed times and exchanged reports of conditions, etc. with other sailors on the same passage. The worst situation was when 1 sailboat (SV Windigo) about 300 km north of us - no doubt in the worst of the squash zone - was knocked down. The couple was banged up and their boat was disabled. It had taken on water through broken hatches or ports, rendering batteries and motor useless and (I believe) they had lost their life raft too.

They sent a May Day that they needed to abandon ship. In response, another sailboat (Adventure Bound) who was between us and Windigo, turned back to help. They had to beat into huge waves and winds at a snail's pace, a hugely taxing and strenuous task for boat and crew in such severe conditions. In the meantime, a New Zealand Orion aircraft dropped life rafts for the stricken yacht which the crew was unable to retrieve in the tumult.

Just about the time Adventure Bound made it back to the distressed boat, over a day later, there had arrived a freighter to assist. It was another 12 hours after that that they had to wait for the seas to subside enough for the crew to be rescued onto the freighter. During this ordeal, New Zealand dispatched a Navy ship to the scene, but that passage was about 700 km. The freighter waited until the Navy ship arrived when the traumatized crew was then transferred aboard for the secure trip down to their homeland of New Zealand.

As we conversed, we learned many other boats on this passage had blown out hatches and ports, had broken equipment, and almost jokingly admitted that they had discovered leaks that they never knew they had before.

But as always, storms pass and before we knew it we were sailing along in pleasant conditions with 'another one under the belt'. Below is a still visible moon setting as the sun rises over calmer waters...

Calm at last

The rest of the trip was marked with a variety of no winds to a strong breeze and by the reappearance of the great wandering albatrosses, dolphins, and as we got close to land, commercial traffic, most notably, the longliners. We chatted on the radio with 1 captain who said his line was 28 km long. He assured us that we could pass over it with no risk of tangle as the only thing on the surface was the buoys every 500 m or so. Large freighters even pass over them.

Land Ho! (We love to say that when we spot land after a long passage!) It was 11:25 on November 11th. We approached the Bay of Islands, 1 of the best cruising spots in New Zealand, where a craggy rock stood guard marking the north point of the bay.

Rock on guard

Once we passed the point and entered the large bay, we had to sail up the sound about 2 hours to the inner Opua Bay where at the marina we finally tied up for our check in. We arrived at 19:30, after-hours for check in, so we were relegated to the Quarantine dock (S35°18.815' E174°07.359') along with about 7 other new arrivals.

We were allowed to get off the boat so it was nice to find some stability and stretch our weary legs. It would be the next morning before we would be processed. Until that time, we were on a wharf secured and segregated from the marina. We could wander the wharf and visit with the other arrivals, exchanging tales of the passage, but were not allowed to board anyone else's boat.

The next morning, we were processed by 3 waves of officials. The first was Agriculture. They have a long no-fly-list of items prohibited, like eggs, vegetables, peanuts in the shell, cheese, etc. We had used up almost all items on their list, but had to sacrifice some honey and sprouts. And they took all our garbage so they could safely dispose of it!

Next was the pleasant gaggle of Custom officers who were more interested in visiting than officialdom. We showed them picture books of Vancouver Island and chatted them up till finally they said, Okay, we're done, and left without checking anything else in or around the boat. Finally it was the Immigration officers and they efficiently filled out the paperwork, stamped our passports, and bid us a G'day mate.

1 comment:

s/v Libertad said...

glad you made it safely. Hope all continues to be well. Love to read your blog.

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