South Island Circumnavigation


I was enjoying light head winds whilst motor sailing past Cape Campbell, the eastern most point of the South Island of New Zealand, when my ear detected a slight change in pitch from the engine throbbing below my feet. The sun was out with just a hint of strong winds to come showing up in Mare’s Tails high up in the blue sky.

I pulled up the steps that lead into the saloon of Sirens’ Song and removed the engine cover: No smoke and the engine wasn’t overheating. I keep the engine clean so I can see any build up of dust from the alternator belt or oil drips from the numerous gaskets – nothing unusual. I’d had a few problems with the mount for the heat exchanger but had a strong bracket bent and welded up in Wellington (only 1800 km ago) so I thought it couldn’t be that. I checked anyway – amazingly, the 5mm thick steel bracket had sheered into a sharp point under the exchanger.

Tension and anxiety always starts to creep in for me in these situations (and they do happen quite often when sailing and more often on a trip like this). I was thinking: Will the exchanger get damaged? Where can I get the bracket fixed? Where can I get to without an engine? When is this wind going to arrive? I quickly arranged these thoughts into priority order and started to tackle them one by one (this is a part of sailing that I love).

Damage control: pad the exchanger with hose inside a cable clamp – done.

Weather: download/look up latest weather forecast to know what I’m dealing with.

Destination: Safety first, then bracket fixing location – this is more difficult than it sounds because distance isn’t the main concern when sailing with no engine: safety, wind, current, tidal gates all interact with each other to create a complex problem to solve (another part of sailing that I love).

I decided to split the journey by running to safety as things would be too critical and stressful if I were to try and match multiple challenges one after the other. I decided on an easy sail to Port Underwood that was 25 nm away (1 nm = 1.8km). Ordinarily I could count on getting there in 5 hours, the journey was to take 7 with flooky winds and contrary tides. But it had an easy entrance and contrary to the name, has no port but plenty of anchorages to be able to hide from any approaching wind. I ghosted into Pipi Bay and lowered 45m of chain under the keel as I was still sailing in, this stretched the chain along the sea bed and dug it in as I took a wrap of chain around a deck fitting. The boat swung to the chain and sat there in the inky blackness until the sun came up.

The next challenge was to sail up the coast to Tory Channel and time my arrival with the turning tide so that I had a few Knots of tide pushing me into this bubbly narrow entrance to Marlborough Sounds. I had decided on here rather than Wellington (which would have been technically far easier) because I wanted to spend my time fixing the engine in a nice place.

The 14 nm would take 3 hours with an engine but under sail and against tide, I wasn’t sure. My tidal gate was set between 12.30pm and 2.30pm at the latest. If I was later than this I would have to either sail to Wellington or round the top of Arapawa Island. Both these options would mean an extra 24 hours sailing and probably sitting in bad weather (as foretold by the Cirrus clouds noticed the day before and the downloaded weather forecast).

P1020564I was off at first light (actually a little before) and started to ghost up the coast in 10 knot head winds. All went well for the first three hours and I calculated I would make it at 12.30pm. I started to polish a brass winch in the cockpit to take my mind off the critical deadline.

By 12 noon I had hit a contrary current and was making less than a knot of headway towards my objective. I tacked inshore to try to pick up a back eddy. This is a dodgy move when there is little wind to get you out of trouble and the tension was mounting for me. In two hours my gate would slam shut and I would be left with a long night in building conditions in the notorious Cook Strait. The boat speed increased to 2.5 knots but not quite in the right direction, my VMG was 1.8 knots (VMG – Velocity Made Good is a measure of your speed towards where you ultimately want to get to). At this rate I would miss my gate.

P1020588I tacked offshore again and risked running the engine in gear but only on tick-over. Still only a VMG of 2.5kn. I know that wind and sea are ambivalent to my presence but sometimes I can’t help shaking my fist and shouting expletives about being let go or let past or whatever. I was playing with leech tension, tightening the kicker, tweeking the staysail, piling on the pressure on the running back stays all to try and get that extra .1 of a knot that would get me across the line.

I tacked back inshore, skirting the rocks by 50m, feeling the bounce back of waves as they piled up on the empty, beautiful, terrifying wilderness shore. Craggy Point made me think of Father Ted and how unfunny it would be to end up ashore there.

Miracle of miracles, my VMG increased to 3 knots and I was able to put out an “All Ships” on my radio to announce my imminent arrival into Tory Channel. In some ways, this is where the adventure could have really begun – the tide swirls through a gap of 150m at 7 knots and the wind gets formed into bullets that can knock a boat flat onto the water when it is only blowing 15 knots outside. Fortunately (although it wasn’t luck), I had arrived just as the tide was turning (1 hour later than the books say), and the wind was so light outside that there were no willi-waws. This was a blessing and a curse as I had little power to manoeuvre and if a ferry were to come through, I could be in trouble (hence the “All Ships” announcement).

P1020569As it turned out, the wind dropped as I hit the entrance, the sun shone warmly and a sea lion came out to wave its tail at me. A couple of penguins scuttled about the eddy lines and I was able to take off my thermals and bask in the sun as I ghosted towards Picton through the sounds. I felt relieved and extremely happy. I hadn’t realised before then that in coming into Tory Channel I had just completed a circumnavigation of South Island. Happy days!


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