Why is it so HARD to sail to New Zealand?

Nov 15, 2017| 3 Comments

It’s over 1000 ocean miles from Navula Pass, our final reef exit upon leaving Fiji, to the Custom’s Dock in Opua, New Zealand. That’s a good 7-day crossing for us, though it could be 6 with favorable winds or it could be 8 with unfavorable winds blowing straight down on us or with no winds at all. Who knows? Of all the passages we have made in the past 11 years going to and from countries and the many islands in between, sailings into or out of New Zealand have been the hardest. According to The Captain, for The First Mate is not counting, we have made 6 passages to/from New Zealand. Of that number, only 2 have been good passages, and those were when we left New Zealand’s shores. Why, then, is sailing to New Zealand so difficult?

New Zealand sits pretty far south in latitude, and, in this part of the world, the further south one goes, the quicker moving and less predictable the weather systems become. High and low pressure zones rotate in and out rapidly and, with them come extremes in winds, temperatures and precipitation. In short, one never quite knows what to expect.

Up here in Fiji, local weather forecasting causes us to smile. Day after day, it reads “fine, except for periods of showers”, and that is usually what it turns out to be. That is not to say they don’t have bad weather, but it is usually predicted well ahead of time, of relatively short duration, and then it’s back to “fine, except for periods of showers”. One can live with that. A 7-day forecast can generally be counted upon to be mostly like what it says.

Such is not the case in New Zealand. When the weather systems are changing fairly rapidly, a 3-day forecast is about as far out as one can go with any real certainty. Seven days? That’s all meteorological mumbo jumbo followed by statistical hocus-pocus, seat-of-the-pants guesswork and finger crossing. Do you get the idea? Cruisers joke that when they look at a 7-day New Zealand forecast, all it takes is a trip to the bathroom to have it change. Refresh the page, and one could almost believe one was looking at another country.

From whatever country one is leaving – be it Fiji, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, The Kingdom of Tonga, wherever – all boats face the same problem with this long passage. Predicting what it is going to be like those last few days before landfall in New Zealand is very, very hard. What is Mother Nature going to throw at you as you passage deeper south and closer to New Zealand. The First Mate knows in her bones that they will get hit with something, and it most certainly isn’t going to be all fair wind and calm seas. “Get ready, body,” she tells herself.

When we returned to Fiji in early October, The Captain had put together our desired schedule:

  • 10/12 – 11/1    Cruise western Fiji islands
  • 11/2 – 11/5      Marina for provisioning and passage preparation
  • 11/6                 Check out of Fiji in Lautoka
  • 11/7 – 11/13    Passage to New Zealand
  • 11/14 – 12/1    Boat maintenance and cruising in New Zealand
  • Early Dec       Fly to USA

Near the end of October, we position ourselves within several hours of Lautoka, for this is the nearest city with Customs Offices to clear out of the country. The Captain begins to study the weather between Fiji and New Zealand with the idea that there might even be a possibility of leaving as early as November 1st. We’re ready and are anxiously anticipating all the “boat” things we have to do in New Zealand before we return to the States in early December. We have several weather programs on the boat, and all are called into action. It is amazing how widely disparate their predictions can prove to be. Taken together, the best that can be learned is that all the data conflicts. That does not give one a lot of confidence. Thus, for this passage, we have contracted with a professional marine weather forecasting service called Commander’s Weather. We have used them in the past on some of the more dicey passages, and they have proven themselves to us.

Friday, October 27th – Commander’s Weather tells The Captain that nothing is looking good for departure in the upcoming week. The Captain reminds them that we would like a 2-day window before we actually set sail. The first day sees us returning to Denarau Marina for a final topping up of fuel. The second day sees us clearing out with Customs in Lautoka and then we motor a good 4 hours to anchor just off Navula Pass. We learned the hard way not to exit this pass in the late afternoon. With the normal increase in afternoon winds barreling down and around the big island, conditions going through the reef and then proceeding south can be uncomfortably demanding, as this is where the winds that get blocked by the island tend to concentrate. We struggled to get double reefed the last time we attempted this pass in the afternoon, and we are not going to do it again. Thus, it will be in the quiet stillness of the next morning that we will officially leave Fiji. All told, that actually means we need a 9-day weather window for this passage to New Zealand. Is that really possible? Not really, but one can always hope.

Wednesday, November 1st – After cruising the islands for 3 weeks, we need to re-stock and re-fuel. A quick trip into Denarau Marina for 2 days will take of that. Restocked and with our four 50-litre reserve fuel containers filled, 2 of which are strapped to the aft sides of the boat, we are now ready to set sail for New Zealand.

Friday, November 3rd – Done with marina needs, we head back out to some nearby islands not wanting to be too far from Lautoka where we hope to be heading in 3 – 5 days to finally check out of the country. There is supposed to be some of the best snorkeling in the Mamanukas off Mociu island, a small private knob of an island. By 1330, we are anchored and in the water. The coral was as advertised and so were the fish. Super! The First Mate, ever attempting to look at the bright side of things, tells herself that this is something they would not have seen if they had been able to leave Fiji as planned.

We had hoped to anchor off Qalito Island, as we had not so long ago, but the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, and under threatening skies, we motor back to Musket Cove.

Monday, November 6th – Commander’s Weather: wait 4 days! The First Mate is dismayed to learn that this does not mean we may be able to check out in 4 days. It means that the weather is so eminently bad that there’s no reason for them to even look at it again for another 4 days! However, if, per chance, us cruisers want to keep moving, they offer an alternative. Sail to New Caledonia! From there, when the weather settles, we might actually have a better wind angle for the sail to New Zealand. It’s also 100 or so miles closer. New Caledonia? Are they pulling our collective legs? That’s a 6-day sail in itself. Two more days to clear customs, and other than the opportunity to gorge on French wine and cheese, what would that give us? We would still have a 6 – 7-day sail to New Zealand. The First Mate laughs at the idea, and she wonders if someone at Commander’s Weather isn’t doing the same. She also takes it as a bad omen that no one there is expecting the weather to improve any time soon. Well, they say, it was just an idea if we were really antsy and wanted to keep on trucking. No, we’ll sit tight, stew and wait.

What to do? The First Mate wants to go out to that magical sandbar off Musket Cove that appears at low tide. The Captain isn’t all that interested. A sandbar is a sandbar after all. It is a bit of a distance to push the recalcitrant outboard, but it’s a quiet day. The water is calm. We can row back if necessary. We pull the dinghy up on the sand. We’re here. What now? Let’s walk to the end of the bar. She does not exactly receive an enthusiastic response, but off we go. The First Mate really does find it neat out here, and the views across the bar and the water are worth the trek. At least to her mind, they are.

There are shallow pools of water that have yet to evaporate. Small starfish, no wider across than 4″, can be seen in these pools. The First Mate stops to study one. It’s moving! Look! Starfish don’t move like that she is told. Well, this one does! Then, before her eyes, it sinks into the sand. It just disappears flat out. What’s this?

She scopes it out of the sand. Sets it back in the pool where it slides sideways for a bit, stops and then sinks into the sand. Look! Look! Finally, she has The Captain’s attention. Turning the starfish over, they examine the tiny tentacles that run down both sides of its arms. These not only propel it through the water along the sand, they must also move the sand out the the way so the animal can flatly sink into the sand. How neat! Another positive experience to chalk up to this weather delay!

Tuesday, November 7th – What now? Let’s return to Castaway Island to climb to the top. By 1230, we are anchored below the island. A tour boat has unloaded a group onto the beach, but as we pack our lunch for the hike, a horn blasts to alert those on shore to get back to the boat. They leave as we start heading for shore. The island is ours!

The track quickly deteriorates into little more than a faint animal track. It proves a scramble over loose dirt, fallen tree limbs and boulder rocks, but we make it up to the plateau overlooking the anchorage. That’s as far as we can go, for to get to the very top, we discover that climbing gear and ropes would be needed. Still, the view is reward enough. She mentally ticks off another plus due to the weather delay.

With a wind forecast of very still air over night, The Captain “creates” an anchorage for us off one island. Though a native village is slightly visible way down the beach, the spot feels remote and slightly wild. Perfect! Need she say this? Another positive experience created by our weather delay.

Thursday, November 9th – We’re back at Musket Cove. Our passage weather has not shown any signs of improving. Our hopes to be off by the end of this week have been replaced by a hope that maybe we can leave early next week. So, what now? The First Mate suggests that they go out to dinner at the resort dining room. It overlooks the pool and the bay with all us boats out there. It’s pretty. Sure the food is more costly than it’s worth, but it is something to do. Reservations made, when we show up at 1900, we discover that this is Feast Night. It is not what we had planned, but we’re here. The roasted pig on the banquet table looks appealing. It certainly is not the usual scrawny, underfed animal we have been served at native feasts in remote island villages. The dinner proves to be very good. The meat is succulent and well seasoned. Several delicious veggie dishes complement the feast. Beer for The Captain. Sparkling for The First Mate. We’re content.

To our surprise, the evening concludes with a Fijian song and dance performance. The First Mate’s cup is certainly half full. It turned into an unexpected delightful evening — all curtesy of our weather delay!

To our dismay, the weather here in Fiji changes from “fine with occasional showers” to rain and wind. We decide to stay here in Musket Cove for the next few days, and frankly, we are running out of ideas. What to do? That’s the problem. Not only have we been there, done that several times in the last few weeks, there just are not that many places we can go and still stay within a short commute to Denarau Marina and Lautoka when the weather finally settles for us to set forth.

Friday, November 10th –  Commander’s Weather:  Wait 5 days! NO! Maybe we should have gone to New Caledonia! We are not the only boat waiting to head off to New Zealand, for with cyclone season just around the corner, most insurance companies will only cover boats in countries like New Zealand and Australia. Thus, with the delay, there is now a backlog of boats waiting. A couple of boats, perhaps more impatient, decided to bet that the low of high winds and rains will rotate out of the way by the time they get down there. They set off. Brave souls, hopefully not foolhardy. We’ll find out when we all finally get to Opua.

Sunday, November 12th – We are not getting daily updates from Commander’s Weather since, with nothing good to tell, there’s no reason to communicate. However, The Captain checks his various weather forecasts when their twice daily updates are sent out and is becoming more and more despondent over the changing, mostly deteriorating, conditions. Fleeting upticks sporadically give us some hope, but the next weather forecasts invariably dispel those hopes. Today, though, according to the forecasts, if we were to leave this Wednesday, November 15th, winds are shown to be in the 20’s by the time we reach New Zealand. That’s perfect. We decide that tomorrow morning we will return to Denarau Marina to once again re-stock and refuel. We’ll be prepared if Commander’s Weather gives a confirming advisory to head off on Wednesday.

Monday, November 13th – We don’t need Commander’s Weather on this one. Those 20-knot winds blowing out there in the last forecast are once again shown to be up to 35 knots. Definitely not desirable for this duo! That possible Wednesday departure is now out of the question. The anchor remains where set here in Musket Cove.

Predict Wind is The First Mate’s favorite weather program because it is so visual. It really is a video that depicts the path of various boats leaving over several days and the expected conditions each boat will encounter during the passage.

Here is a photo of one of the charts. (Click on the photo to enlarge.) First, the colors indicate wind speed. Blue, Green and Yellow are what you want. Anything going toward orange is a warning, and red is just not to be considered. (These are all of The First Mate’s opinion.) Second, the wind arrows. The pointy end shows the direction that the wind is blowing. The hatch marks at the opposite end depict wind speed with each mark equal to 10 knots, and, again in The First Mate’s opinion, they are always 5 – 10 knots under predicted! The dotted lines show possible routes, but of key importance are the little boats. This is a photo taken of the video depicting the boats moving as the weather changes. Fiji is located at the top of the screen. New Zealand is that whitish blob at the bottom. The lead boats are the ones that hypothetically left on Wednesday. This photo was taken as the program showed where the boats would be and what the weather would be like after 4 to 5 days. Look at the dark red those lead boats are in! This is why we are not leaving this Wednesday. The good news is that up at the top around Fiji, those leaving now on Friday and Saturday look to be having a very nice start. Unfortunately, it is still too many days out to see what might be happening around New Zealand by the time those Friday/Saturday departures get into those waters. As our cruising friend, John Martin, waiting for us in Opua, says, “there is too much chaos” out there to be sure of anything. Will we ever get home?

By now both of us are frustrated. Spirits are sinking. There is nothing much to do on land, and under overcast and drizzly skies, there’s no incentive to sail anywhere and no place to sail that we haven’t already been to many times on this trip. This twosome likes exploration and change.  Avante is, uncharacteristically, becoming smaller and smaller. The First Mate can no longer come up with a positive thought or experience. Her cup is beginning to run on half empty. Both work at maintaining marital harmony. Talk little and stay out of each other’s way! If this continues much longer, we’ll be avoiding eye contact!

Tuesday, November 14th – A morning review of the latest weather update shows that those Friday/Saturday departures may just be holding as a possibility. Tired of being anchored in Musket Cove and with further rain threatened, we decide to return to Denarau Marina. In general, we prefer to be anchored, but right now, a touch of civilization sounds good. “We’ll go out to dinner,” says The Captain. That sounds just fine to The First Mate. The Captain has a few maintenance items to do, and The First Mate needs to finish her final cooking for the passage. “We’ll turn on the AC,” says The Captain. “Even better,” thinks The First Mate.

Thursday, November 16th – 0745 – Commander’s Weather’s email arrives. Jump for joy! (Use your imagination.) They have us routed, and what is really encouraging is that they are showing possible departures over the next several days. That means there is actually some stability to the weather. Thus, if we check out today, leave tomorrow morning on what is the first good departure date, we’ll be arriving well within those fine days. They say to expect 150nm days for the first 3 and then as the wind freshens, we should easily be doing 180nm days into New Zealand. That’s slow for Avante who knows she can easily  do 200nm days on passage (she’s not lying), but beggars can’t be choosers in this situation. Weather shows good: we go!

Predict Wind is right on, too! The First Mate watches in fascination as the little boats progress south to New Zealand with nary an orange or red blob in sight. “Perfect,” she thinks. The Captain, however, is not as enthused, for he knows that means we will be motoring a good deal of the time. It’s not that The First Mate prefers motoring over sailing on passage. It’s that she prefers motoring over sailing around in 30-knot winds and 6 foot seas.

How she loves Predict Wind! Look at these images! Okay, she does realize that weather being weather, anything can happen out there, but at least right now, at this moment, predictions show a very benign passage.

Out to sea. Avante is hypothetically one of those lead boats at the top of the screen having departed on Friday. We’re in the calm blue most likely under motor due to light wind, but look at that nasty red if we were much closer to New Zealand which is most likely where some of the earlier departed boats are at the moment.

Here we are sailing into Monday. We’re moving into blue/green showing that the wind has begun to freshen. Hopefully we are sailing or will be soon. Down by New Zealand, look at how the deep red has changed to a softer orange. Things are improving down there!

By Wednesday, we are definitely sailing! One and a half to two hatch marks, 15 to 20 knots of wind, and not on the nose either. Could be a little more on the beam for The First Mate, but she’s not complaining.  Look, too, at the color change around New Zealand. No red. All blue. C’est merveilleux! (Practicing her French for next year in French Polynesia.)

Avante should be showing up on the Customs Dock by late Friday and, if we’re lucky, in time before Customs closes for the day. It looks like we’ll be back to motoring those last 100 miles or so, but with our destination in sight, who cares? We just want to get there!

0830 – The Captain returns from paying our bill at the marina office with “terrific news!” The Customs Officials are coming here to the marina today. We will not have to move the boat to Lautoka, launch the dinghy and head ashore to the Customs Office there. We will not have to stand around waiting in what could be a line of cruisers all also checking out today. How wonderful! Yes, we will have to wait for them to show up on our boat, but the wait will be on our boat where, involved in our boat activities, the wait will not be so painful. They should be here around 10:00. That’s more than fine, for if we were heading to Lautoka, we would not even be there by 10:00.

1100 – No Customs officials in sight. None of the waiting cruisers have seen them along the dock. The Captain returns to the office to check. They are here, he is told, but they are on a Carnival cruise ship anchored out in the bay right now. How long does it take to check in or out a cruise ship of that size? Who knows, but they will be out here on the docks as soon as they are finished. Fortunately, we are not in any hurry.

Returning to Avante, The Captain spots the thick fueling hose on the dock. Can they fill us, too? Yes. Perfect! A task saved! That means we will not have to motor over to the small fueling dock after Customs clearance.

1120 – Fueling started. We are next in line after a 55-foot sailboat next to us which took a while to fill. It’s first fuel tank took almost 900 liters!  Then the next one had to be filled. Avante tops up both her tanks taking a total of 136 liters. If we add up both tanks and our 4 reserve containers, we have a total of 600 liters on board. That other boat must be able to motor to and from New Zealand from here. We don’t carry enough fuel to even motor one way, but then we’re a sailboat. Sailboats are supposed to sail, and that we will do!

1150 – Two Customs officials show up just as the fuel hose is taken off the boat. Perfect timing! Sitting below, they efficiently check and stamp all their documents. By 1215, they are completed, and we’re shaking hands saying goodbye.

0100 – Lines let loose. We are off! Next port of call: Opua, New Zealand. Stay tuned for the next chapter to read how the passage went.

    Comments (3)

  1. What a wonderful blog Sue! Your descriptions of your day puts me right with you. So full of depth and feeling. Love reading them. Sailing is for the hardy, persistent, “love of the seas’ type of person. I enjoy reading them from my armchair, and always look forward to the ‘next’. Hope you make it to New Zealand in a timely fashion. Good luck.


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