Saturday, June 2, 2012

Tonga (Vava'u) to New Zealand (2011)

After spending six weeks in Tonga, we made preparations for our next passage to New Zealand.  Unfortunately we just missed a really nice weather window, and after getting the boat ready, we had to wait another 10 days before conditions were right.  The timing for this passage is important, as it can be an extremely difficult trip if you go at the wrong time.  The trek south covers 17 degrees of latitude, and the warm weather of the tropics quickly give way to the cooler, less consistent weather of the higher latitudes.  In fact, we spent quite a bit of time in Tonga studying the weather patterns and various words of advice from other cruisers and weather routers.

Generally speaking, weather systems move through every five to eight days, with the strength of the system dependent on the center pressure.  The trip from Vava’u is 1,200 nautical miles, so we knew we couldn’t avoid encountering a front between the systems, but we could try to pick a milder front north of 30 degrees, where they have less of a punch.  We would also set a course for a position 300 miles north of North Cape, New Zealand, rather than sailing the rhumb line (direct course).  This would improve our angle on the last few days of the passage if westerly winds are encountered.   

As for timing, the most popular strategy we heard was to depart from Tonga at the top of a high pressure system, which rotates counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere. This would enable us to ride the east and then southeasterly winds for a few days.  The recommended route passes near the Minerva reefs, which are 400 miles to the southwest and can be used as a stopover to wait for another weather system depending on how quickly the high is moving. We were hoping to sail straight through to New Zealand, but liked having the option to stop in Minerva if it made sense. 

As we departed, we had SE winds at 15-20 knots, and had to beat our way out of the island group.  About four hours later, we were able to fall off a bit as the winds shifted to the ESE, and we enjoyed near perfect sailing conditions for the next 24 hours. The winds lightened some to 10-12 knots for the next few days, but we were still making progress until about 40 miles from Minerva when the wind died.  Knowing that we might need our fuel later to motor through light winds in the middle of the high pressure system, we decided to drift for the night since the winds were supposed to pick up the next day. 

The next morning the wind finally filled in at SSE 15 knots, and we were sailing again.  Unfortunately, the wind was on our nose, and we sailed cautiously between North and South Minerva reefs. The weather forecast at this point was looking good for continuing on and bypassing Minerva – in fact, all of the boats that were anchored there that night departed the next morning for New Zealand as we were sailing by.

The strategy for the next leg was to make as much westing as possible, as it was likely we would encounter westerly winds as we neared New Zealand.  Unfortunately, we did not get the SE winds we were expecting, as they shifted to the S instead.  We sailed most of the next eight days on a close-hauled course.  The winds were not too strong and typically in the 12-18 knot range, with only one day of 20-25 knots.  The seas, however, were another story.  Quite often, they were confused without a clear direction, creating a sort of washing machine effect that was most uncomfortable.  At times, we found ourselves sailing closehauled with seas on our beam.

This was by far the most uncomfortable passage we have had yet.  Pounding into seas for the last eight days took its toll on us and the boat.  You could just hear the strain on the rigging and the bulk heads creaking as we pounded into each wave.  The flexing of the boat seemed to loosen up some joints, as we were noticing quite a few more leaks in the cabin top.  We were soaked as we were constantly getting doused with waves and spray in the cockpit, and the air and water temperature were much colder than what we had grown accustomed to in the tropics.  We decided on this trip that we were definitely going to build a dodger during our stay in New Zealand to get some protection from the elements. 

approaching the Bay of Islands, NZ

When we saw our first glimpse of New Zealand on the morning of November 14th, we were ecstatic.  The seas calmed quickly as we had some protection from the land and the sun finally made an appearance after five days of overcast skies.  We made our way into the Bay of Islands and to the Opua Marina, where we pulled up to the quarantine dock just before noon.  Before customs and immigration arrived, we were greeted by a lovely woman from the marina office with a welcome bag of information and goodies.  Only in New Zealand do you get a welcome bag when you arrive. 

The clearance procedure went quite smoothly, and we pulled into a slip in the marina within about an hour after arriving.  It was a great feeling to be securely tied up to the dock.  We had fresh water right at the boat so we could give Saviah the first freshwater rinse since leaving Mexico.  Even better, we took our first hot showers in over six months.  Although we really enjoyed our cruising through the South Pacific, we were ready to spend some time off the boat for a while and looking forward to the next six months in New Zealand. 

Bay of Islands