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Sailing to the Wild

Kawau ForestOne of the things that is great about New Zealand is how seriously the country takes it’s holiday vacations. Many companies, like Michael’s does, completely shuts down from the week before Christmas to long after New Years. Even here in central Auckland countless cafes, doctor’s offices, and retail shops sport “back mid-January” signs on their windows a few days before Christmas. With three weeks of vacation ahead of us, we provisioned the boat and headed out of the city, just like in the old days.

It was blowing 25, gusting 35 knots from the southwest when we pulled out of our Auckland slip. This is, we were to find out, not unusual summertime conditions. We would also learn that the weather we’d had a year ago, during our first New Zealand summer, was highly unusual with day after day of calm, sunny conditions. We kept within the protected confines of Waitemata Harbour and tucked into Islington Bay of Rangitoto Island 12 miles away.

The wind howled over the low land protecting us in the bay all afternoon and evening. It finally let up overnight and we headed out into the completely calm Hauraki Gulf the next morning. And motored in glassy seas the 25 miles to our next anchorage, at Kawau Island. North Cove is quite protected and we spent a week there as the wind howled day after day. Santa found us, we hiked around, we met some of the local neighbors and visited with Lin and Larry some more.

Santa spotted at Kawau Island!

Santa spotted at Kawau Island!

Christmas Eve 2013

Christmas Eve 2013 (The notebook is Leah’s, full of trick questions for Santa to answer…thank goodness for Wikipedia.)

Screams echoed throughout the bay when the girls spotted the hitchhiker on our dinghy - a massive stick bug!

Screams echoed throughout the bay when the girls spotted the hitchhiker on our dinghy – a massive stick bug!

After a week we thought we had an opening to sail further north to Whangarei but once we rounded the top of Kawau we were greeted with wind and waves right on the nose. Whangarei was 40 miles directly into the wind. We’ve learned enough by now, finally, that it’s perfectly fine to turn around and wait another day. So we did. The following morning we were greeted with 18 knots from the west, directly from the beach, and had a fast, flat beam reach all the way into the river. We made such good time that we decided to keep going — it was New Years Eve after all — and head into the town basin instead of anchoring near Bream Head as we had planned. Incredibly, the wind cooperated and we sailed nearly the entire way up the meandering shallow waterway in a very light breeze (admittedly, the 2 knots of current with us helped).

Sailing up the Whangarei river

Sailing up the Whangarei river

There is a new drawbridge just before you reach the Whangarei town basin. We tied up to the courtesy float there around 1700 and called the bridge operator on the VHF. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “The bridge is too hot. There is not enough clearance to open it due to the expansion. I will check it in a few hours to see if it’s cooled and shrunk a bit. Also, the bridge is closed for peak traffic until 5:30.” We watched a single car pass over the bridge in front of us. Scratching our heads, we cracked a cold beer, heated up some beans and sausages and ate our New Year’s dinner waiting for the hot sun to set on the murky green river.

New Year's Eve at the overheated Whangarei River bridge

New Year’s Eve at the overheated Whangarei River bridge

It was 2100 by the time we were tied up at the town basin wharf. But on our way in, we fell in love with this place. Funky cruising boats like ours tied up everywhere! Not a sleek, white racing boat to be seen! The river is lined with boatyards and marine shops and dilapidated boat sheds. Heaven! Quiet! As you might expect, the town didn’t get too crazy for New Years and the carpets were rolled up early. Our family sat below, aboard Wondertime talking about our favorite memories of the year while sipping cold glasses of bubbly drinks (champagne for Michael and I, fizzy apple juice for the girls). Holly didn’t quite make it and stumbled to her bed at 11:30. Leah did fine and blew our airhorn with gusto at midnight. Then we joined the rest of the dark town already in bed.

At least it's a warm rain, Whangarei town basin

At least it’s a warm rain (Whangarei town basin)

The best bookswap in NZ (Whangarei)

The best bookswap in NZ (Whangarei)

We only had a day to meander around town but that’s pretty much all you need. We took some hot showers, did a few loads of laundry, picked up some fresh fruit and salad greens at the Pak ‘N Save across the street, chatted with the super friendly locals, then floated on back down the river.

At Marsden Cove we met a customs officer and checked out of New Zealand. Then we headed straight out 25 miles, bound for the closest waypoint in international waters, turned around, and motor-sailed back in, with a breathtaking sunset guiding us back to shore. The next day the same customs fellow welcomed us back to New Zealand, stamped our passports and gave us a fancy paper stating that Wondertime was officially imported as part of our resident belongings, GST-free.

Return to New Zealand (Bream Head)

Return to New Zealand (Bream Head)

Relieved to have our “business” officially done we finally felt like we were on holiday. The next day brought the perfect wind: 20 knots from the northwest. We pointed the bow to Great Barrier Island and covered the 50 miles out to the edge of the Hauraki in no time. The wind gusted to 25 at times, the seas were bouncy and steep — the gulf is shallow — but thankfully aft of the beam. There may have been an accidental jibe (it’s the autopilot’s fault) followed by a few choice words, but at least no one was sea sick and nothing broke.

Which made coming into the calm, protected harbour of Port Fitzroy all the more sweet. We really didn’t know what to expect, but had only been told that the Barrier was amazing. Port Fitzroy is a completely landlocked harbour, about 5 or so miles long with smaller bays to anchor in scattered all around the perimeter. Most of it is Department of Conservation land, with only a handful of private houses scattered around and the teeny tiny settlement of Port Fitzroy itself. It was green and mountainous. We hadn’t seen anything quite like it since Canada. Inside, the wind was gloriously calm.

Port Fitzroy anchorage, Great Barrier Island

Port Fitzroy anchorage, Great Barrier Island

We only had a week here, which was not at all long enough to fully explore this wonderland. Every day the four of us hiked through native bush on immaculate tracks, all nikau palms and fern trees and giant kauri, past waterfalls, old logging dams. We swam and snorkeled — briefly! This island is pest-free which means native birds flourish and their incredible songs woke us each morning. We spied nests in the mud walls right alongside of the trail and tiptoed around them, as the tiny birds inside peeped for food. And the bugs! The treetops literally screamed with the sound of cicadas and our ears rang with the cry of them calling for mates. There were giant stickbugs and beetles. Right from the shore we watched an octopus drift from rock to rock, hunting. It is a wild, wild place and we never wanted to leave.

Swing bridge, Great Barrier Island

Swing bridge on Great Barrier Island

Wondertime family, Great Barrier Island

Smokehouse Bay, Port Fitzroy, Great Barrier. You can heat water on the wood stove and then have a private hot bath inside, or in one of the outside tubs. Or just swing, as we did.

Smokehouse Bay, Port Fitzroy, Great Barrier. You can heat water on the wood stove and then have a private hot bath inside, or in one of the outside tubs. Or just swing, as we did.

Post-snorkel cozy up (Port Fitzroy, Great Barrier)

Post-snorkel cozy up (Port Fitzroy, Great Barrier)

But the city called us back. There is money to be made, for now, and school will start up again in a few weeks. With days of strong southwesterlies in the forecast, a parade of boats motored along with us, due SW, back to Auckland. Along the way, we found cell service again and got the news that our friends in Vava’u, Tonga were safe after cyclone Ian passed, despite 100 knot winds in the area and were incredibly relieved. We arrived back to our slip safely, and didn’t check the forecast again for weeks.

Our magic carpet

Our magic carpet (Great Barrier Island)

One Comment

  1. Randy cox says:

    Nice blog! Thanks for sharing a wonderful experience.