Thursday, 16 June 2016

Opua NZ to Mackay Australia

Opua NZ to Mackay Australia 14 May – 28 May 2016

We set out on Saturday 14 May at noon for our 1800 mile trip from Opua to Cairns in near perfect conditions.

The first Few Nights

We sailed for the first twelve hours in a good wind and it all looked good. We had our pre-prepared traditional first night meal of chilli con carne which just required heating and some rice to be cooked. Need to keep everything simple on the first night and we know that it takes a couple of days to settle into a routine, especially overnight where we alternate watches of three hours each.

Wind died overnight and we started motoring north to get some distance between us and NZ. Over the next 4 days we sailed in any wind over eight knots in flat calm water and motored when the wind dropped below this. In the first 5 days the wind never got over twelve knots so progress was slow and we spent a lot of time motoring.

The first low hit NZ six days after we left and Opua  was subject to 50 MPH winds but we were five hundred miles north by then. We picked up thrity knot winds across the beam and a steep sea for two nights which made sleeping difficult. I had to wake Catherine up at 4am to put further reefs in the sail on the first night although the forecast showed nothing but light winds!  Two days later the wind died and we were back to motoring in glassy seas but starting to worry about fuel. We had used three quarters of our tank capacity in the first six days and no wind in sight.

To Kill a Mocking Bird

On the seventh night I was on watch in a crystal clear sky mesmerised by the clarity of the stars in the night sky when a bird starting circling us. It kept trying to land on our wind generator but diverting at the last moment and once again circling the boat. It was interesting for the first hour but then starting to get annoying as if flew low over the cockpit. Then it did manage to land on the wind generator for a second before taking off straight into the wind generator’s vanes. A loud clunk and flying feathers was the last I saw of the bird and in fact the last anyone would see of it.

An Active Front Approaches

On day eight we heard on the forecast on the SSB radio that another deep low was approaching NZ and would give rise to a series of active cold fronts spreading out from Fiji right across to Australia. It was a very active cold front with strong winds, squalls and lightening, giving rise to 5 metre swells in Fiji. With the previous experience of an active cold front etched into our memories, we prepared for the worst and even considered diverting to Bundaberg which was a lot closer than Mackay. 

However, we would just arrive in Bundaberg as the front hit - it would be better to be at sea with plenty of room to manoeuvre rather than closing the coast so we continued towards Mackay.
We went through our standard procedure – shortening all the sails early, preparing a meal that we could just heat up the next day and checked every line and secured everything that might move on the boat. And we waited, and waited. After 48 hours, the highest wind speed had been twelve knots even though there had been a lot of ugly looking clouds. The clouds gave way to sunshine once again and back to eight knot winds. A total non-event!

With 400 miles to go, all we needed was some wind. We were on track to arrive on Friday morning which we would just be ahead of a NW wind that was developing in the Capricorn Channel at that time. Nothing to worry about, ten to fifteen knots  and forty degrees off our course so we could still sail directly up the channel.

The Capricorn Channel

Two days later we entered the Capricorn Channel for the last 200 miles of our journey which is all within the Great Barrier Reef. On the Thursday night the winds rose to 25+ Knots from dead ahead which meant we had to tack up the channel (some 100 miles wide at this point). A one knot current had developed against us and the wind and waves had started to build quickly. It was not long before our boat speed over ground fell to three knots with the boat struggling against the wind, waves and the current. We had to make wide tacks to keep the boat moving and we were now faced with a procession of cargo ships coming up and down the channel.

With steep waves crashing over the front of the boat, we could only tack by using the engine to turn the boat and even then it was not easy. Overnight in the now 30 knot winds we had managed to close the distance to Mackay by twelve miles in twelve hours. This continued for the next twenty four hours as we laboriously tacked back and forward trying to make some headway. Sleep was near impossible as the boat pitched and rolled in the sea.

On the Friday afternoon, a plane flew low over the boat and the coast guard contacted us by radio. They could see we were struggling in the weather and just wanted to make sure that we knew that it was illegal to stop or anchor within Australian Coastal waters before we had cleared in at a designated port. Welcome to Australia!

On the Friday night, we were eight miles before we could turn out of the Channel and head the last sixty miles directly towards Mackay. The forecast was for the wind to die on Saturday morning and we had so little fuel we could not risk motoring. So we used the engine for two hours to head as close to the wind as we could, almost straight into the waves which was very uncomfortable and the boat shock we hit wave after wave and the water cascaded down the sides of the boat.

As we reached the turning point around the rocks in the channel (well-lit as they are a major navigation hazard), we could ease the sails as we came round 60 degrees to port. The motion of the boat became transformed and our boat speed increased to seven knots – and heading in the right direction!

We got within twenty miles of the coast before the wind died, the sea became glassy once again and the sun was out. We motored slowly to conserve what little fuel we did have and spent three hours sorting out the boat – lines everywhere, water everywhere and the inside of the boat looked like it had been in a washing machine.

Clearance into Australia

We tied up at the Quarantine dock at 12:00 on the Saturday exhausted. Customs and Immigration officers came on board and were very friendly and very thorough. After ninety minutes on board, the boat once again looked like it had been through a washing machine with every cushion removed, every cupboard thoroughly searched and both of us interrogated separately (in a very nice but very pointed fashion) – clearly checking that we had not stopped on route and checking our stories independently.

We had to wait a further two hours before Bio Security visited us and a slightly easier and shorter inspection followed – and then we were free to berth in the marina.
We had talked about going out for a meal that night but when it came to it we were both far too tired. We did however get some fish and chips and managed to stay awake until 8pm before we went to bed. Fourteen hours later we woke up, still feeling tired.


Our plan had been to do nothing on the first day except get on the bus to Mackay and have lunch. It was Sunday and there were no buses but the lady at the Marina Office offered to lend us her car for the day. So we decided that we would provision for the Whitsundays which would be a two weeks visiting islands with limited or no facilities for provisioning. Shopping is not our idea of a relaxing day but it had to be done at some point and it would mean we could leave Mackay sooner rather than later – not somewhere to hang around. And we were keen to sail up to the Whitsunday Islands which are reported to be one of the best cruising grounds anywhere.

The guide book says that Mackay has nothing to offer and suggested it was only good for provisioning but we still wanted to have a look round for a day. The next day when we hired a car, the receptionist questioned why we would want a car for the whole day –there is nothing to see here. For us, a drive out to see the countryside was worth the effort and we were happy to find somewhere to walk. We even saw a Kangaroo or was it a wallaby – not sure which but exciting nonetheless.

That night we met up with some friends (Rob and Kay) we had met in the South Pacific for drinks and dinner. They live in Mackay and keep their boat in the marina. They gave us a list of islands to visit, which ones to avoid and the best routes between the islands, depending on the weather. So on Tuesday morning we said goodbye to Mackay and headed off for a couple of weeks of island hopping.

Arrival Back in NZ and Getting Ready for Australia

Arrival Back in NZ and Getting Ready for Australia 21 April – 14 May

Back To New Zealand

The flight was no worse than expected – 24 hours on the plane with a two hour stop-over in San Francisco. We had expected the worst in transiting through the America with the finger printing, visas, endless queues and so the slightly less than awful experience was upside.

We were met at Auckland airport at 6:30am by Glen and Jillian who had arranged to take us to their beach house and onto our boat the next day. After a very pleasant lunch sitting outside we began to appreciate being back in the warmth and the sunshine.  A shower and short sleep in the afternoon set us up for the rest of the day, playing games and relaxing over dinner.

The next day Glen and Jillian took us to buy some provisions on route back to the boat and we hauled our luggage back onto the boat, up the very steep ladder. The antifoul had been done while we were away and once I had sorted out the skin fittings that needed re-bedding, we could launch again – hopefully the next day which was Saturday. The yard foreman told me that they did not work at the weekend and the Monday was a public holiday so Tuesday was the earliest we could launch. That meant four nights on the hard with no running water, no toilet and a climbing the steep ladder up to the boat –we do not like staying on the boat on the hard. However it did give us four days to get on with jobs on the boat without the distraction of actually enjoying being on the boat.

Back in the Water

The launch went without a hitch and we motored off along the 15 mile river back out to the sea with a good forecast in the offing. After two hours the latest forecast had been updated with 30 knot winds and rough seas now replacing the original forecast and as we reached the mouth of the river we decided to anchor for the night while there was still plenty of daylight. Our only option was to anchor on a lee shore i.e. with the wind blowing us towards the land so that if the anchor drags the boat ends up as match wood on the beach.

We dropped out anchor with plenty of sea room between us and the shore in 30 knots of wind and we had four hours before dark to ensure the anchor was holding. By night fall we were confident the anchor was rock solid and despite the poor conditions, we were pleased to be back on the water. The forecast also predicted the winds would drop overnight to less than 10 knots by morning so things would only improve.

Back to Opua

With no wind for two days we were forced to motor with one overnight stop in a very pleasant anchorage on the way. We had brilliant sunshine, calm seas it was a relaxing couple of days and enabled us to check how the boat was working, albeit under motor rather than sail.

First night back was quiz night at the yacht club which we could not miss. We joined with Exocet Strike (John, Brian and Stella) to form a British contingent in the quiz and we were doing very well up until round 9 which had all questions on famous people in the press – the NZ press. We bombed out with just one question right but still managed to come in third place overall. It was a good night.

To work on the Boat

Our first priority was to get the water maker working efficiently and to stop the small leaks that had developed. We spent two days, stripping down the water maker, moving the pump so it was lower down in the boat and cleaning the water maker with the specialist chemicals I had bought back from the UK. The end result of all this was poultry 12 litres an hour which the water maker obviously thought was good enough – we disagreed. Advice from the supplier in the UK was to change all the seals and that should do the trick but we would have to have them sent out from UK.

I had changed all the seals not 6 months earlier and talking to other sailors, the complex energy recovery type water makers we had were very efficient but needed constant maintenance – most had junked theirs. So we did the same and invested in a mains driven system which would produce 115 litres per minute. The on-site company had a good reputation both for the quality and simplicity of their water makers but more importantly agreed to get it fitted before the end of the week.

Next day they started while I went off for a spot of golf at Waitangi with John Martin who runs the rallies from NZ. A very enjoyable afternoon in the warm sunshine and soft breeze off the sea and I played some of my best golf in a long time. OK I lost the game by two holes but we played off equal handicaps and he used to play off five, albeit fifteen years ago, so I was not too upset.

The second priority was to get the rigging finished off. I was concerned about the stiffness of the furling system and having read the manual decided that dismantling the furling winch was not something I wanted to tackle (I had plenty of other jobs that needed doing). Rob, the rigger we used before, spent 7 hours getting the winch apart, servicing it and doing a few other odd jobs. Seeing the problems he was having vindicated my decision not to do this one myself. No problems with the furling on the mainsail after that.


We had set aside two days for provisioning – one for Catherine to do a recce (while I continued to work on the boat) and the other to do the bulk of the buying. We had decided to provision not only for the journey across to Australia but also the bulk dry goods we needed for Indonesia where they are difficult to obtain. With three trolley loads, the small car that we hired was looking decidedly small. And noticeably slower on the way back.

Some of the worst part of a major provisioning is the getting it all from the car to the boat and then finding places to put it. We had had enough for one day so opted to put everything in the forward cabin and shut the door.

Going for a Test Sail

By the end of the first week it was clear that the window for leaving NZ had shifted back at least six days and so we decided that after the water maker had been finished on the Saturday, we would take a couple of days out in the Bay of Islands for a test sail. After all we had not actually sailed the boat since January and we were going to embark on an 1800 mile journey.
It was great to be out of the marina and into the bay again and we switched off the engine and sailed in 15 knot winds. Catherine spent most of the first afternoon asleep in the aft cabin which may have had something to do with John, Stella and Brian from Exocet Strike coming over for a drink the previous night.

That night we tackled the shopping still in the forward cabin and spent four hours getting things labelled, packaged and stored in a logical fashion i.e. so we had a sporting chance of actually finding something when we wanted it. It transformed the boat and after the last week of the boat being upside down due to all our maintenance efforts and installing the water maker, it felt like home again.

While we were at anchor we carried on with our list of jobs on the boat. As we sailed back into the marina we felt we had a good couple of days and we had at least practiced some of our routines like setting the pole for the genoa (which did take a few attempts before we got all the lines in the right place). All helps confidence.

Darts Night

Wednesday night is the darts competition in the yacht club (they play “halve-it” which we play in England), mainly played by locals but with a few visiting yachtsman thrown in. Catherine and I joined in for a bit of fun and remarkably I was in the lead for the whole game – up until the final round where I missed the centre of the board to end up in forth position. That final slip meant that I missed out on the first prize which was a glass of wine. So close yet so far – it could have been my glass of wine.

The next day we decided to do our fresh meat, fruit and vegetables provisioning for the trip to Australia – fourteen days. We had to plan it so that we had no fresh food left as you cannot bring these items into Australia. A small shopping trip compared to the last one.

Route and weather preparation

Since we had arrived back in Opua, I had been looking at the weather, talking to other sailors about tactics and sorting out all the weather forecasts for the journey. The advice was to head mainly North up until 25 degrees south (about 600 miles) and then turn left and head directly towards Mackay. It was a longer route than heading directly from Mackay but got you away quicker from NZ and the risk of a storm and quicker into the SE trade winds.

Final Preparation

We carried on doing jobs on the boat until 5pm on the Friday including filling up with diesel. At that point we could relax which was probably a bad thing. We both started thinking about the journey and the fact that we had not really sailed any distance in the last six months and we were about to set off on the longest journey with just the two of us on board.

The mild panic of the Friday night (pre match nerves) dissipated by the next morning as we checked out with Customs and had a final cup of coffee in the very nice café in the marina. We left at Noon with great confidence and actually looking forward to being back at sea. We also left with very fond memories of New Zealand and the people we knew well.