Twenty years ago Sarah and I sailed from Fiji to New Zealand aboard the hundred foot tall ship Alvei. We knew nothing about sailing and nothing about this passage. By the time we got to New Zealand I felt like Ferdinand Magellan. Shortly after arriving we described our accomplishment to some other sailors on the docks.
“You took 21 days!?”, they exclaimed in disbelief.
Aye matey! We beamed like old sea dogs. Is that… pretty fast?
It turns out 21 days is a little on the slow side. Most boats will do the trip in 7 to 10 days. We laugh now about how ignorant we were at the time.
Twenty years later as we planned the same trip on our own boat, the comforting embrace of ignorance had abandoned us. This passage has some notoriety among sailors. New Zealand can experience some serious weather. You look at the forecasts to pick your weather window, but the further out you look the more things can change. With a ten day voyage there’s the possibility of an unpleasant surprise near the end.
As we waited to depart we observed a boat ahead of us caught in just such a scenario on their approach to New Zealand. They were caught by some heavy weather, sustained damage, and required rescue. Hmm.
There is a textbook strategy for timing your departure from Fiji with a passing high pressure system, but this being an El Nino year, the classic conditions didn’t materialize for us. After a very early cyclone appeared just a little west of Fiji, we opted to depart into a forecast which looked… meh.
“A gentleman never sails to weather”, is an old sailing expression that we always try to live by, but for this passage there would be no avoiding it. For over a thousand miles the wind and waves would be coming from the direction we wanted to go.
On November 1st we departed Fiji with some trepidation and began our long bash towards New Zealand.
This type of sailing was somewhat unusual for us, so we did a lot of experimenting with our sail configurations. In order to punch into the waves we needed more sail area than we might use in better conditions. More sail area caused us to heel quite a bit and made for a boisterous ride as we launched over waves of two and three meters. There was a lot of salt spray flying around.
Using the washroom in these conditions was interesting. Imagine trying to use an outhouse while some huge giant is actively trying to shake you out of it. Now you’re weightless. Now you’re doing a pushup on the door against massive g force. Weightless again. The situation actually seems quite impossible.
At one point as we heeled over a little extra Nyah said to us, “I don’t like looking up and seeing the ocean above me. Can someone go out there and do something about this?”
Right away Cap’n!
To make conditions aboard more comfortable Sarah and I had to learn a little more about sailing to weather. I reached out for advice to our friend Douglas who is a racing sailor on Salt Spring Island.
This may not be obvious to an outsider, but in the sailing world racers and cruisers are two completely different breeds. They cannot produce offspring. One goes fast, the other goes far. One carries hundreds of pounds of anchor chain, the other cuts their toothbrush in half to minimize weight. On Mandolyn we’ve spent the last 18 months avoiding sailing to weather, while Douglas sails to weather regularly, and apparently… for fun.
Our friendship has survived these differences and he gave us some good advice which did improve our comfort upwind. I had to stop him when he suggested making steering adjustments in each wave trough.
Sir! I’m not holding on to the tiller all day long like Ben Hur! A gentleman uses self steering gear.
Aboard Mandolyn one day blended into the next as we meandered in the general direction of New Zealand, rarely pointing directly on target. The passage is around 1050 nautical miles as the crow flies, but Mandolyn did not take the path of crows. Instead she followed the noble albatross, at home on the sea and in no big hurry to make landfall.
In the end our passage took 11 days, smashing our previous record by 10 whole days. The biggest complaint was boredom and nobody was traumatized. ‘Boring over roaring’ is a new family catchphrase.
After we cleared customs and docked the boat we walked up the ramp to set foot on New Zealand. We hadn’t even touched land when we saw a woman wearing a Salt Spring Sailing Club hat. Our home port. Did we take a wrong turn!?
I should mention I was feeling like Magellan again. We crossed a whole ocean to get here! Must be a world record!?
The woman in the Salt Spring hat turned out to be the legendary sailor Jeanne Socrates, who at age 78 sailed around the world single-handed, unassisted, and non-stop via the Five Great Capes. Non. Stop. She holds the record for the oldest person to have done so. An actual world record.
Magellan, by comparison, was only 40 during his circumnavigation, took 270 men with him, and died before he got home. How disappointing. Next to Jeanne we have about as much experience as the schmucks who stepped ashore here twenty years ago. It’s nice to know there’s still plenty of room for personal growth.
We made it to New Zealand!
Next stop: More New Zealand.