Shifting Into Cruise Gear
A lot has happened since my last letter to the Herald, most of it good. I will share the highlights with you. First of all, Trude arrived and my life took a quantum leap for the better. We have been spending a lot of time working on the boat, trying to get it in perfect shape for our passage to Tonga at the end of April. I had saved all of the jobs that require more than two hands for when Trude got here and after a few days of enjoying just being together we started in on the projects. I won't bore you with the details of the projects but I will take the time to tell you about some of the fun we have managed to squeeze in between the work.
The Whitbread boats started arriving in Auckland around 4:00 AM on a Sunday morning. About 30 thousand Kiwi's turned out to welcome in the leading boat which turned out to be New Zealand Endeavor. A yacht basin had been established in downtown Auckland and the boats motored into the basin after crossing the finish line for a bunch of celebration and partying. We arrived at the yacht basin about 7:00 AM. We had hoped to be there when Dennis Conner arrived on Winston but they beat us there by about half an hour. However, as Big Bad Dennis came ashore and was walking over to the Winston club house Trude chased him down, introduced herself and shook the hand of her long time hero. We hung out around the yacht basin long enough to see several more of the Whitbread yachts trickle in. Because the Kiwi's are really into sailing and make such a big deal out of the Whitbread, it was quite exciting to be there as the racers came in.
We have become quite good friends with a Kiwi couple who have taken it upon themselves to show us the wonders and pleasures of yachting around the Hauraki Gulf. In addition to showing us their favorite coves and anchorages, they have divulged to us where there secret mussel and scallop beds are and have taught us how to harvest them. Fresh scallops in garlic butter is the food of gods.
We spent one long day at the last day of the three day Auckland Folk Festival. I took the guitar and mandolin and had a great time jamming with the people there. It was like taking a trip in the wayback machine to the sixties. Lots of old hippies and people living out of busses that had the most incredible paint jobs. I was amazed to find that many Kiwis are really into bluegrass music. One fun aspect of the festival was the potluck home brewed beer and pub song party. Home brewing is very popular in New Zealand (all the grocery stores carry the supplies) and a lot of people brought a sampling of their favorite recipes to share with the crowd. As each round was sampled, the crowd would stand in a circle and sing some Irish pub song at the top of their lungs. A good time was had by all.
The Whitbread fleet was scheduled to leave Auckland on February 20. We had been working on several projects that made Vela Dare unsailable and our goal was to get enough done so that we could take Vela Dare out for the start of this leg of the Whitbread. We finally got done about two hours before the start and we were about an hours sail from where we wanted to view the race. It was blowing about 20 to 25 knots and drizzling and there were literally thousands of spectator boats along the race course. There were two tall ships that were used as turning marks about a mile to windward of the start line. We anchored in about 55 feet of water on the windward side of the turning marks and waited for the Whitbread boats to arrive. Looking in the distance we could see the tops of the sails over a thick haze on the surface. The thick haze turned out to be the spray and wakes generated by the thousands of huge power boats that were shadowing the fleet. Vela Dare was tossed around like a cork by all of the huge wakes. The most exciting moment for us was when Heineken (the all women boat) decided to sail above the rest of the fleet which put them on a collision course with us. They had to pinch up really hard to avoid our anchor chain. Yes, we had the camera rolling but didn't realize that we were out of tape. Oh well, at least we were there. Were we on ESPN? We had a big Texas flag flying from the backstay and the F23 and Stickney burgees flying from the starboard spreader.
It seemed like we would never get the projects done enough to leave the marina but we finally managed to slip away for a mini cruise along the New Zealand north east coast. Our first stop was Great Barrier Island, about 40 miles off the coast. When we started in the morning we had tail winds of about 25 knots. The wind and seas kept building during the day and by the time we were about to make landfall it was up to 40 knots with gusts to 45 and the seas were getting really rough. To make it even more exciting we were sailing onto a lee shore where there were four big rocks (or little islands) that all looked the same but there was safe passage only through two particular ones. We had completely doused the main and the jib was furled down to about one third of it's total area and we still felt on the verge of control. However, we were too close to the lee shore to screw around with trying to reef the jib further. We finally reached a point where there was no way we could turn back into that wind and sea and we had to make a choice. After several tense moments of shifting glances between the chart and the real world (while being slammed by walls of cold salt spray) we picked a slot and shot through it. It turned out to be the right way and we sailed into a perfectly sheltered and spectacularly beautiful harbor. Our Alpha 4000 autopilot did such a fine job of steering the boat that we dubbed it Mr. Ralphalpha, after that other great helmsman Mark Ralph.
One moonless night while anchored in a well sheltered bay at Great Barrier Island the sky was so clear that we could see quite well with just the light from the billions of stars overhead. Then a magical process started happening. The wind died completely and the water in the bay became totally calm. A school of thousands of mullet entered the bay and were swimming around the boat. The activity of the bioluminescent microorganisms was at a very high level and the bay came alive with streaks of blue fire. Anything that moved in the water was surrounded by a bright phosphorescent blue glow. It was a truly wonderful sight. I got out the spinning gear and enjoyed watching the bright blue glow of the lure moving though the water. We threw some chum in the water and marveled at the phosphorescent blue feeding frenzy. (OK, I confess: i pee'ed off the boat and made pretty blue patterns in the water). To top off the night I got my first look at the Southern Cross. What do you do when you see the Southern Cross for the first time? I thought of my friend Sid Cannon (he'll know why) and wished he was there to share the moment.
After a few days at Great Barrier Island we set sail for an area called the Bay of Islands. The Bay of Islands is sort of the playground for the wealthy with lots of nice beach houses and privately owned islands. The sail there was our first time to sail overnight. It was upwind all the way and we decided to sail offshore to the rhumb line. We had all kinds of weather conditions and everything went well. One of the centers of human activity in the Bay of Islands is the town of Russell. On the day that we sailed into Russell we were delighted to find that the Americas Cup yachts were having match races in the harbor there. The Japanese team was racing against the Kiwi team. I don't know what is happening in the U.S. with the Americas Cup but the rest of the world is busy tuning up their boats and crew. Once again we were almost hit by one of the AC boats. The races were over and the AC boat was being towed by it's tender while the mainsail was being lowered. The tender misjudged how close they were to us and the wind and current almost blew the AC boat onto us where we were anchored. We didn't quite touch but I could have jumped onto their boat if I had wanted to. It was great to get such a close view of these fabulous racing machines.
Also in the Bay of Islands is the town of Opua which is a major congregation point for the cruising yachts that are visiting New Zealand. We met some really great people there. Jim and Shannon on the yacht "Reefer" (their dingy is named "Madness") showed us all the in's and out's of harvesting, preparing and eating clams. I heard about a jam session that happens every Friday night there and we had a great time at that. It was a lot like Saturday nights around the campfire at Hobie regattas.
From the Bay of Islands we sailed even further north to Whangaroa Harbor. When entering this harbor I felt like I was sailing into Yosemite Park. We sailed from the open Pacific Ocean through a pass that is about 150 yards wide into a harbor that is laced with fjords that are surrounded by towering cliffs and giant fern forests. We spent over a week there exploring the dozens of coves and anchorages, hiking through forests of giant ferns, climbing the pinnacles to spectacular views and eating lots of clams. It is a great place to hang out and we felt like we were cruising to full advantage while there.
Alas, we needed to get back to Gulf Harbor Marina and finalize the preparations for our sail to the Kingdom of Tonga. The sail back from Whangaroa Harbor started out with a perfect sailing day followed by a miserable night of 40 knot winds and rain. By the next morning the wind had died off to nothing but there was still plenty of swell left over to rock and roll us and without wind to keep the sails full the motion of the boat was miserable. Trude and I both had our first ever cases of sea sickness. Finally, we made it back to the marina and a good nights sleep.
By the time you read this, we should be either in Tonga or on our way there. We are really excited about having Bill and Therese Davenport come over and join us for the passage to Tonga. Our little mini cruise of New Zealand gave us a good chance to shake down the boat and ourselves and no major problems were found. The only major projects left are to take and pass the exam for the general class ham license, reply to the backlog of letters and to provision the boat for the season in Tonga. The weather here has been unusually good so we have spent almost all of our time working on projects. The downside is that we have gotten pretty far behind in responding to letters. Sorry about that; we will get caught up soon.
You've heard it said before and I'll say it again: It's a small world. We were talking with the Kiwi who owns a big power boat across from our slip. When he found out we were from Dallas he started telling us stories about when he had camped out on sandy islands at a place called Lake Texoma, built a big fire from the driftwood and sat around the fire with friends drinking some kind of Mexican almond flavored tokillya. Just yestarday, I met a lady down the dock who grew up in Corsicana and has been living in New Zealand for many years. Sometimes, it just doesn't seem that we are half way around the planet.
I don't yet have the mailing address for us in Tonga so anyone wishing to write us should use our mail forwarding service until further notice. We hope to hear from you soon, or even better, to see you when you come to visit.
A good breeze, a beer and a star to guide us,
Micheal and Trude on Vela Dare