It was 8am, the sun was shining, the wind was perfect and we had spotted land after 11 days offshore! We were ecstatic to say the least, and still 108 nautical miles from our destination of Whangarei, we were already scheming how fun of a night we would have at a local pub. Beer, wings, burgers, you name it! We had some serious food and booze catching up to do.
Our enthusiasm was well-founded as with a perfect 15-knot breeze on our beam, we were flying South towards our goal. Soon we sighted Cape Brett on our starboard, which marks the entrance to the fabled cruising grounds of Bay of Islands. Unbeknownst to us at the time, a mere 14 days prior, and in much different weather conditions, an unlucky crew on their 47-foot similar sized sailboat encountered bad weather and sunk less than 20km away from the entrance to the relative safety of Bay of Islands. They had been on the same Fiji to New Zealand trip as us and after 8 days offshore, they were mere hours away from landfall and safety. Unfortunately, the very experienced skipper loss his life in the event. Our thoughts remain with him and his family. It really is incredible how the same body of water, on different days, even in different hours, can hold such a different reality and consequences.
Around mid-day the wind started picking up and slowly shifting on our nose. From a beautiful 15 knot beam reach, we were soon battling a full-on 30 knot head wind. Multiple tacks ensued as we literally clawed our way to the entrance of the Whangarei Harbor, eventually resorting to motor sailing to make any progress. By then, our delectable dreams of burgers and beers in a cool little pub somewhere toasting to our brilliance had been replaced by the cold (and wet) reality that we would not arrive at Marsden Cove Marina until well past 9pm and as such, the border service would be closed and we would have to spend the night on the Quarantine dock. Buzzzz kill… Saxony was definitely not thrilled with this change to our carefully planned landfall extravaganza and turned into a bit of a crabby-pants.
We ended up navigating the entrance channel to the Whangarei Harbour in pitch dark, and finding the entrance to the tiny little channel to Marsden Cove Marina proved to be the final challenge of the crossing. Jimmy had ALULA firmly under control and got us tied up to the quarantine dock in no time. We stepped off the boat, and THERE IT WAS! We had done it! So much joy and big hugs all around!
The immediate aftermath of a crossing has to be lived in order to be fully appreciated. I was surprised at the incredible feeling of accomplishment that I felt, both personally and for our crew. It does make sense in a way. While there are glorious moments that stay with us forever, a crossing can also be a struggle, your home and your world is in constant motion, sleep patterns are significantly disturbed, one has to battle queasiness and cold. And in the last few days of this particular crossing, we snuck in right behind a Strong Gale, which meant rowdy conditions and a rapid discovery of all the leaks we will need to fix!
As ALULA was now tied up at the dock, I spent a few minutes standing on her deck looking at her graceful lines. Amazing how a sailboat can quickly go from sailing 1,100 nautical miles, battling wind and waves, to sitting quietly at the dock as if nothing had happened. I could almost hear her: “oh hum! Nothing to see here, this is just another day’s work for me!”
We had promised ourselves we would drink our last few beers as soon as we tied up at the quarantine dock. Why not, we had nowhere else to go and the Customs Agent had confirmed he would be checking us in at 9:30am the next morning.
I guess we had a lot of pent up party energy as we proceeded to empty pretty much every bottle of liquor on board, and I don’t think anyone remembers going to bed. My return to consciousness the next morning was Saxony waking me up to tell me the Customs Agent was aboard. “No way” I thought, and just closed my eyes and went back to sleep. A few minutes later Saxony was back, again she did her best to rouse me. It took 3 attempts for me to finally clue in that the Customs Agent had decided to get an early start to his day by showing up 1.5 hours early at 8am, and yes, he was indeed aboard!! Yikes!
Saxony says she heard him knock on the hull a few times which roused her from her sleep. She found quite the scene in the main cabin with Guy passed out half naked in his bunk, various discarded bottles strewn about and a door completely off it’s hinges. After all of the recommendations we had received on how to make a great impression with the Customs Agents, we had failed miserably. To his credit, Bruce the Agent eventually warmed to us and was even cracking jokes by the time he left. Only in New Zealand could we completely botch an entrance into the country yet walk away good chums with the Customs Agent. We do not recommend trying this anywhere else!
The goal for the day was simple. We fancied motoring up the river to the Whangarei Basin Marina which is a quaint little marina directly downtown. We would finally get to indulge in our dreams of pub food. We navigated the little channel back to the main river, which was soooo much easier in the daylight, and we started motoring upstream. It was one of those moments I will savour for the rest of my life. The sun was shining, the scenery was beautiful, we had some sweet reggae music playing, we had all cracked open a cold beer, we were basking in our accomplishment. And then… all of a sudden, Saxony smells burning rubber. Uh oh… I race down to look in the engine compartment, I open the side access panel, and I immediately get sprayed in the face and on my clothing by a fine mist of engine oil. WTF? I realize the three belts serving our two alternators are completely destroyed. Not only that, the belts also work the engine coolant pump. And on schedule, I hear someone in the cockpit say that the engine temperature is climbing. Noooooo!
We dropped the anchor in the middle of the river channel and Jimmy and I took stock of the situation. I can’t overstate how nice it was to have Jimmy, and his wealth of mechanical experience, on this trip. We had noticed during our crossing that the alternator belts were spraying a fine rubber dust in the engine room. A sure sign of misalignment causing degradation. Well, the belts lasted about 30 minutes beyond the crossing, and not a second more. And when the belts exploded, they somehow got sucked in around the engine shaft which broke the oil seal. After many conversations with various mechanics, all have said this was an extremely rare and unfortunate incident, a one in a thousand bad luck.
We sheepishly sailed back to Marsden Cove Marina, only starting the engine for the few minutes needed to navigate the narrow channel and tie up to our berth. On one hand, we were disappointed we would not reach the Town Basin Marina. On the other, we were so grateful ALULA and the alternator belts had held together JUST long enough to get us in the night before. We can’t even imagine how painful it would have been had the breakage occurred just outside the entrance to the river, in the pitch dark and in the high winds.
Annie, Jim and Guy spent a few days with us and then flew home to the South Island to see their families. This left Saxony and I to go full speed on boat projects. We had one week to get ALULA “put to bed” and ready to spend one year on the hard until our (then) anticipated return in the fall of 2020.
We had one major hurdle to overcome. We needed to get to Norsand Yard to haul out ALULA. And Norsand was located 9 miles upstream on the river. And with no working engine, that was going to be a challenging 9 miles. We kept an eye on the tide tables (yes tides go up rivers too) and the wind forecast and we were beyond lucky when both lined up for us. We only used the engine for a few minutes to navigate the narrow channel out into the river. We raised the sails and lo and behold, the wind angle was perfect for us to sail North up the river! Eventually, we had to navigate a small bend in the river which saw us going upwind with too narrow a channel to be tacking back and forth. We ran the engine for a few minutes while I closely monitored temperature and oil levels, and before we knew it were sailing North again! It was glorious, a real sense of accomplishment to have pulled this off.
We were in a rush, we had so much to do in so little time. We never got to make friends or enjoy being in such a wonderful place. We removed all the sails, tried to fix as many leaks as possible, and went through the detailed list provide by the previous owners Pat & John. We rushed all the way until the last morning when we boarded a shuttle to the airport for our flight back to Vancouver.
We had done it! Looking back, we are extremely proud of what we had accomplished. We had given ourselves one month for the entire trip. This included one week in Fiji to get our new-to-us boat ready for a notoriously challenging crossing to New Zealand, execute the said crossing, and then another week to get the boat ready to spend one year on the hard. It all went off without a hitch, more or less 😉
A big thanks to Annie, Jim and Guy for their incredible help with this endeavour and a special thanks to Pat & John who kept “The Rose”, now ALULA, in tip top shape, which made this whole rushed affair even remotely possible.