Travelogue 11: New Zealand, and Pearl Harbor Day Commemoration (7 Dec 09)
We left Fiji reluctantly, knowing this was the end of our tropical voyaging this year, and there would be no more snorkeling or scuba. The voyage to New Zealand from Fiji was about 1100 nm and began in bad weather with bumpy seas and fresh winds, but that weather system soon petered out and we were left with no winds at all, and so were forced to motorsail for three full days. During this period our main halyard chafed through, and we had to rig up another using the main boom topping lift.
After six days we reached the Bay of Islands and Opua, the port of call where we checked in with authorities. It was dark already as we rounded the head of the bay and we had to wend our way down the entire length of the bay – I would estimate 15 nm – going from nav marker to marker. Piloting such a course at night requires searching for and following the flashing lights on the markers, whether green or red or white or yellow, and following them according to their order as laid out on our nautical charts. That night we were met with blinding shore lights of the several towns along the bay that made discerning the nav lights quite difficult, as well as unexplained weird flashing lights – mostly red and white – that we could not decipher. These lights would appear and flash like crazy then suddenly quit, only to re-appear nearby but not at the exact same place, with slightly different patterns. We were totally stumped until Glen, our New Zealander crewman, rhetorically asked the day’s date, and when we told him, explained that it was Guy Fawkes Night, marking the downfall of the plot led by Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London in 1605, and celebrated with fireworks.
Soon thereafter we almost ran into a big nav marker – probably standing 15 feet high out of the water with a greatest diameter of four feet – even though all three of us were on deck intently looking. Glen was using our night vision scope and suddenly hollered, “Hard to starboard, skipper!” I quickly turned off the autopilot and spun the helm and we whisked by the marker by the narrowest of margins. We noticed then it was flashing a red light. None of us yet can understand why we missed that one, unless somehow the light itself was obscured in our direction, which makes no sense as we were following the ship channel.
We also missed the Quarantine Dock and instead tied up at another dock nearby, a few hundred meters/yards in front, and were asked to move by a car ferry retiring for the night, so we walked the boat backwards down the dock until the ferry could squeeze in. That should have led us to check further for the Q Dock but we didn’t, and only left and found the correct dock early the next morning. Despite everything we had heard about the thorough and invasive nature of New Zealand’s Customs Service when checking incoming yachts, we found it all quite easy and the officials very polite. Some friends of ours on another boat, though, later had two sniffer dogs come aboard – one for drugs, the other for explosives! And Customs did inspect the bottom of most hulls with an underwater camera attached to a large pole. I did not see them inspect us that way, and with two hulls, our boat would have been more difficult than the average keelboat, but they must be accustomed to multihulls by now.
We stayed in Opua for over a week doing a few repairs, including running a new main halyard, touring around the lovely countryside and interesting towns nearby, and also showing off the boat to a prospective purchaser of a new Atlantic 57 who came from Australia. The boat designer, Chris White, also came and we had a great day sailing in the main part of the Bay of Islands (which, by the way, I found quite small, and no bigger than Lake Texoma). It was great to have Chris aboard because he is both a fun guy and extremely knowledgeable, so we always have a laugh or two and learn something that helps us in handling the boat.
From Opua we sailed to Whangarei (pronounced in the Maori way, “Fahng-ah-ray”), about 80 nm to the south, stopping one night along the way at a great anchorage in a highly attractive bay, Whangaruru (also pronounced in the Maori way) Harbour. Underway again we caught a lovely kingfish, a first for me, and we devoured her for lunch and it turned out to taste even better than mahi-mahi (dolphinfish or dorado), which is very surprising as I love mahi-mahi. Also on this leg we set a speed record for Anna: 19.1 knots, on a reach under full main and genoa in winds between 25 and 30 knots.
Whangarei is the boating center for the north part of North Island, but it is located about 30 nm up a shallow estuary that requires following a narrow channel that can be quite treacherous depending on tide and wind. We found the first part of the channel rough and the rest so boring we struggled to stay awake. We anchored off the boatyard where I had previously arranged by email to haul and keep my boat during cyclone season in the South Pacific, from the first of November until the first of May. At low tide, Anna sunk down into the mud, and so when she floated out at high tide we moved her to a different spot where, when the winds built up to about 40 knots, we drug anchor and had to reset, this time in tandem, a Danforth attached by ten feet of chain to the crown of our main anchor, a Bruce, a setup that proved very secure.
Finally came the day to haul her, and we drove Anna up onto a special hydraulically-operated trailer and she was pulled ashore and put on the hard – her mini-keels on railroad ties, her ends on vertical wooden braces – where she will sit until mid-April.
That night was the first time I had slept ashore in six months, since early May.
John returned to his home in Texas, and Glen to his in Haast on South Island. I flew down to Dunedin, a city of a bit over 100,000, also on South Island, and known for its Scottish character and hilly landscape. I stayed there and toured around a few days, and loved the place, then took a bus to a town as near as I could – about 100 miles distant – from Haast, and Glen and his wife, Marie, came and picked me up and I visited with them for several days. Haast is on the southwestern coast of South Island, just north of Milford Sound, and has a population of only 250. It is on the coastal plain abutting the Tasman Sea with the Southern Alps just to the east about a mile, so has both sea and snow-topped mountains and several rivers bringing snow and glacier melt to the sea. The land is mostly lush with forests but also has some bog from all the moisture.
Among other things, Glen is a licensed commercial jetboat captain, having taken tourists up the rivers in this area for a few years, and borrowed from a friend a two-seater, steel-hulled jetboat with a 351-hp Ford engine. He took me out three different times and each was quite an adventure as the boat had no reverse and several other mechanical problems that made breakdowns common. Glen is a gung-ho pilot, and when he saw a shallow spot he would simply speed up and skim right over the log or shoal or other obstacle, sometimes with a bump. Once when it was clear the obstacle was too shallow to do that, he slowed right down and tried to edge around the side but got stuck on high-center, and we had to get on the stern of the boat and rock it back and forth, and rock it and rock it and use an oar and, finally, with help from the current, she came unstuck and we carried on. Another time the boat died and we were being carried at a rapid pace towards the crashing breakers at the mouth of a river in very fresh winds on an outgoing tide, but at the last instant he got her going again and we zoomed to safety. On a more comfortable note, another friend of Glen’s took us with him on two different occasions as he pottered around the mountains and coast in his small Cessna aircraft. And once we paid for the fuel for a helicopter-pilot friend to take us up through the Southern Alps for more than an hour. So I got to see a lot of the incredible southwest part of South Island. It is beautiful, pristine, and barely populated. It is also very wet. All the people there hunt (deer and mountain rams were released in the late 1800s) and fish the rivers, lakes, along the coast and at sea, and collect shellfish and so overall follow a wholesome, if somewhat soggy, lifestyle.
From Haast I drove one of Glen’s cars to Greymouth up north on the west coast, and from there took a train to Christchurch on the east side of the island, going over the spine of the Southern Alps on a gorgeous ride. Christchurch has a population of about 350,000 and is a great urban center, I think, lying in the wonderfully rich Canterbury plains where so much of New Zealand’s crops are harvested, but also near both mountains and sea, especially the lovely Banks Peninsula and the town of Akaroa, an old French settlement. ChCh, as it is often abbreviated, is one of my very favorite cities anywhere, and I look forward to returning and discovering more of it. After a few days there I flew up to Auckland, the largest city, to visit a marine electronics shop and sightsee a bit before I returned to the States. There I visited all the major museums, and even marched in a Greenpeace demonstration that originated just two blocks from my lodgings. The march’s purpose was to pressure the prime minister of New Zealand to set more stringent limits on greenhouse emissions and ended in a park with a concert. About 5000 people took part and the sole celebrity I recognized at the concert was Xena of TV fame, who has a band and sang a few covers of others’ hits.
I really loved all my time in New Zealand. Not only is the land lovely, but the people are friendly and hospitable and good-humored and progressive, and I like them and the society they have created a great deal. I can’t wait to get back to New Zealand around the first of March and tour more of the country, especially some of the winemaking regions.
Not all about New Zealand is positive, of course. It rained two days out of three while I was there, no matter South Island or North. Although it was the transition time between spring and summer, rain is necessarily common in this maritime climate with seas all around the long, narrow islands with mountains catching weather systems as they try to move through. Besides the meteorological problems there are numerous social ills especially associated with the original inhabitants, the Maoris, who make up about 15% of the population, and with other minority groups from Pacific islands who have immigrated here and make up much less of the population, particularly problems concerning substance abuse and gangs and violence. And there exists another facet of New Zealand that I may well uniquely view as a problem while others may not, and that is, after agriculture, the second most important part of the economy is tourism, so the country is almost overrun with tourists and buses and tourist facilities. For a long stretch of the road to Greymouth, for example, I noticed only No Vacancy signs at motels and beds and breakfasts, and the tourist towns like Fran Josef and Fox Glacier were chock-a-block full of campervans and foreigners mingling among the tacky retail shops and coffee houses.
I know it is ironic that I, a tourist, find tourism distasteful, but I do so only in the degree that I encounter it. I just cannot help but prefer to go to a New Zealand town and meet New Zealanders rather than, say, Germans or Japanese, and experience food and culture prepared for local consumption instead of finding everything geared towards a homogenized cosmopolitan taste.
Walking the main street of Auckland, Queen Street, I would estimate around two-thirds of the people were Asian, mostly tourists, I think, but also many resident in New Zealand, as most shop clerks were oriental. I stayed near the University of Auckland and while walking encountered mostly Asians in that area, so perhaps many in the downtown area were also students. I heard that many Asians come to New Zealand and Australia to learn English because both are near home and much cheaper than studying in the US or Britain.
The New Zealand accent is not as broad as the Australian, but there is a definite difference from North American pronunciation of even the most basic words, like “mother” and “father” or “one” and “two”. Also Kiwis use many colonial British terms that strike Americans as quaint or charming, like the word “wee” instead of “little” or “small”, and they combine that with their use of Maori place names and words for animals and plants, so that when they speak fast among themselves I often cannot follow the conversation.
One of the really fascinating things about New Zealand is its unique flora and fauna. They have trees like nowhere else, including some fern trees and giant thousand-year old-hardwoods with small leaves, somewhat like an acacia leaf, and beautiful flowering trees, as well as weird birds like the kiwi – a rather sad-looking animal with its head drooped down, almost pathetic, very awkward in overall appearance, and harmless to the point of being easy prey. There are few predators in New Zealand, however, those being imported cats and rats and weasels, and the occasional native harrier – on first settlement of the Maoris 700 or so years ago, there were only two native mammals, both bats. Even today you can go camping and lie down anywhere and the most you will have to worry about is insects as there are no dangerous animals – no snakes, no mammal predators even the size of a small badger, and certainly nothing that attacks humans.
I love seabirds and went several times to the coast to watch them. The largest in the world – the Royal Albatross and the Giant Petrel – as well as several other albatross and mollymawk species, can all be found around the magnificent New Zealand coast. Gannets, those incredible divebombers, and cormorants, or shags as they are known in New Zealand, are also numerous.
Restaurant food is quite good in New Zealand, and in most places you find a fish of the day, rump of lamb, venison, beef, and a chicken dish for your main dishes, and salads and seafoods like steamed mussels or calamari as entrees (which means starter or appetizer). Prices are reasonable, and as I write the NZ dollar is about 72 cents of a US dollar.
New Zealanders are not as wealthy as Americans, drive older, smaller autos, live less often in McMansions, and tend to be both eager to trade used items and able to repair them. They seem less materialistic but a whole lot handier. Glen is a consummate trader, buying a car over the internet when we reached Whangarei so he would have one there when he needed it, expecting to fix her up and sell the car and cover all his costs and even make a profit.
One rather odd thing about a country with so many water resources: New Zealand has two-speed toilets to conserve on water use; that is, each toilet has two buttons, a flush for big business and a flush for wee business (joke aside).
Domestic travel by flying seems very cheap to me – I paid only NZ$70 for a one-way ticket from Christchurch to Auckland, and Glen told me the same thing, that he can usually find an inexpensive ticket to fly around the country.
Overall I would say that New Zealand is the country that attracts me the most as a possible place to move and live fulltime. Besides being a great place itself, it is just a few hours flight to the wonderful tropical islands of Fiji and Samoa and elsewhere in the South Pacific. It would be an outstanding place to base oneself.
With my boat on the hard and holiday season beginning, I made plans to return to the US. My wife, CeCe, suggested that I arrive about December 8th when she could pick me up at the airport without having to make a special trip to fetch me. Since the flight from New Zealand would be incredibly long, I decided to break it up and stop in Hawaii, and the coincidence of the dates allowed me to attend 68th Annual Pearl Harbor Day Commemoration ceremonies today, December 7th, at Pearl Harbor itself. The program began at 7:30 in the morning, and required before that not only a long taxi ride, but also a boat ride from the Arizona Memorial Visitors Center to the covered dock where the festivities took place. For the non-invited public like me, it was first-come, first-serve, with seating limited to about 1,000, so I got going early and made the first boat.
The program lasted two hours. There were some military and diplomatic and political dignitaries in attendance, some of whom gave rather boring speeches. One of the highlights was seeing the several survivors – sadly, just a handful are left – and the proud widows and offspring of others who either died at the scene or have since passed on. Another highlight was listening to the Navy’s fabulous Pacific Fleet Band, especially when they played the National Anthem and the sad maritime hymn, Eternal Father, which is one of my favorites, and when their buglers played Taps. My eyes teared over several times, thinking about all the sacrifices so many have made over the years, and listening to the beautiful music. There was also a Missing Man Flyover just after the moment of silence at 7:55, the time when the attack began, and a pass-in-review by the naval cruiser USS Lake Erie – all 567 feet of her – with crew on the rails saluting.
The US Pacific fleet, one of the presenters said, has almost 200 ships and around 120,000 personnel. What little I saw of the naval base itself looked in tip-top condition, with several construction and expansion projects underway. It was an impressive display, and the Navy is to be commended. It makes me regret not joining and trying to be an officer on a ship at sea, a career I think I might have loved.
Now it is back to visit family and friends in the US for a couple of months. While I am looking forward to seeing everyone, I am also very eager to return to my boat and get back to cruising, as I must say that I have had the absolute best time of my life the last few months, and want to continue. Cruising should begin again by the first of May. Next cruising season we are planning to visit the following countries: New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand. Our plans are not fixed, however, and that list may well change, and there may be trips home in between visiting some of those places.
I have always liked travel, and for my personality cruising – interesting, healthy, and emotionally rewarding – is its best mode.
I plan on continuing this lifestyle for a long time.
Happy holidays to all!