August 20, 2014

A Southern Summer: Cruising New Zealand

By Robert Cross

When the northern winter comes along and the better-known Pacific cruising hotspots are out of season, New Zealand offers something slightly different. New Zealand is a popular tourist destination, and one of the best ways to see the spectacular Northland coast is from the water.
Russell Town, Bay of IslandsRussell Town, Bay of Islands
Piercy Island, Bay of IslandsPiercy Island, Bay of Islands
Auckland, the gateway to cruising New ZealandAuckland, the gateway to cruising New Zealand
Rangitoto Island, Hauraki GulfRangitoto Island, Hauraki Gulf
Horses on the beachHorses on the beach
Beehive Island, KawauBeehive Island, Kawau
Vivian Bay, Kawau IslandVivian Bay, Kawau Island
Waiheke, bottom endWaiheke, bottom end
CavallisCavallis
Boats Mansion House Bay, KawauBoats Mansion House Bay, Kawau
Sailing up the Northland coastSailing up the Northland coast
Grids, Smokehouse Bay, Great Barrier IslandGrids, Smokehouse Bay, Great Barrier Island

New Zealand is a small country, with a low population density. But its countless bays, islands and harbours, mean it has in fact one of the longest coastlines in the world – just behind the USA. Mix these facts together, and you have a peaceful land in which every place is close by, and where the cruising options are just about endless.

The best New Zealand cruising grounds are along the Northland east coast, where many islands lie just offshore, the beaches are sandy and the water clear. Northern New Zealand has a temperate climate, and for the summer period December to March, the weather is warm, the sea life abundant, and the water inviting to swim in. From April to June it is a bit cooler, but still great for sailing with extensive periods of dry weather and gentle winds.

Northland is split into two charter regions - the Bay of Islands and the Hauraki Gulf - and they are both spectacular. Generally, the Bay of Islands moves into summer first, giving it the slightly longer cruising season. A four-hour drive or short flight north of Auckland, the "City of Sails" and former home of the America's Cup, the Bay of Islands has weather that's a little more steady and reliable December to February.

The Bay itself provides sheltered cruising and is ideal for the less experienced sailor. My favourite anchorages there are Oki Bay and Urapukapuka Island, but even these spots are far enough out that services are limited. While the inner Bay of Islands shore is developed and dotted with many cafes and restaurants (in fact the quaint seaside hamlet of Russell was New Zealand's very first capital), chartering in these waters requires a degree of self-catering. That's a price of peace and tranquillity.

A few hours' sailing north of the Bay of Islands is beautiful Whangaroa Harbour. If time allows, stop over at the Cavalli Islands along the way. Trolling while on passage usually yields tasty Albacore tuna sashimi for lunch. There are a couple of places in Whangaroa where you can dine, most notably Kingfisher Lodge at the harbor entrance.

A southern course takes you around Cape Brett for an easy sail to picturesque Whangamumu Bay, site of one of New Zealand's early whaling stations, where there's plenty of shelter for an overnight stay.

For the cruising holiday, the Bay of Islands has an advantage over the Hauraki Gulf in that its relative distance from Auckland means fewer people. During Kiwi vacation time of high summer, the Bay's anchorages are less populated and its waters less congested than those of the Gulf, which after all is Auckland's nautical backyard. But the Hauraki Gulf presents possibly the greatest diversity of sailing opportunities near a major city anywhere in the world. So in February/March, when the school vacation is over, there's a whole new sailing experience calling.

By February the Hauraki Gulf weather is more settled for cruising. Summer temperatures are peaking and the breeze is steady. It's a short hop from downtown Auckland across to Waiheke Island, once a somewhat bohemian retreat from the city bustle, now its settlements merged into a vibrant suburb, modern in outlook but still reflecting the island's alternative lifestyle persona. Meanwhile Waiheke's rural land has been transformed into award-winning vineyards, olive groves, and various epicurean ventures.

Waiheke is a fabulous place to visit under sail, with its safe, sandy bays and coves, and cluster of small islands at the "bottom end". To the east is Coromandel, another historic settler town, built around the gold extracted from the nearby hills. Te Kouma, directly south of the tidal Coromandel Harbour, is an excellent anchorage, where your boat may well be the only vessel in sight.

On the outer perimeter of the Hauraki Gulf lies Great Barrier Island, offering a great sail to get there and on arrival a place to get stores and dine ashore. Port Fitzroy is an amazing harbour, and there are many nearby walks that weave among the stately New Zealand native bush, all constructed to a high standard by the Department of Conservation.

To the north and just offshore the mainland, Kawau Island is home to a small permanent population, but has no roads. It's a tranquil place of unique character, and it's a delight to take a meandering walk through the bush and historic gardens of Mansion House Bay. On the way back to Auckland, if time and weather permits, stop off at Tiritiri Island, walk up to a lighthouse, and observe the forest regeneration programme happening there. Tiritiri is a bird sanctuary and a living statement to how well the Department of Conservation is doing to bring species back from close to extinction. I equate it to a bird version of Jurassic Park - with an ice cream shop.

The Hauraki Gulf is a large cruising territory, and there are many other smaller islands and coastal harbours I have not mentioned. One is Rangitoto, the nearest island to Auckland Harbour and an iconic part of the city's imagery. It was only 700 years ago that Rangitoto emerged from the sea in a spectacular volcanic eruption – the latest of more than 40 volcanic cones to dot the Auckland region.

Whether planned around the Bay of Islands, the Hauraki Gulf, or both, any New Zealand cruising itinerary must take account of expected and prevailing weather conditions. But wherever you are on Northland's east coast, no passage is more than a few hours, and you are never far from a sheltered anchorage regardless of the wind direction. Summer cruising in New Zealand is ideal for the newcomer to bareboat chartering, and there's plenty to test the experienced sailor as well.

As I reflect on these words, written from years of fun and happiness in these fabulous home waters of mine, it is a sadness to report that New Zealand is desperately short of good boats to charter. Earlier this year the Bay of Islands- based The Moorings closed its NZ operation, having been impacted by new maritime laws. For now, the idea of operating a bareboat fleet sharing boats with neighboring Pacific destinations is not longer viable, or even possible. That's a great loss to sailing people, not to mention the NZ tourism industry. I have faith that this is being reviewed as we speak and by Summer 2015 we will be up and running with new Catamarans from New Caledonia.

But there is some good news! I have an excellent fleet operator based in Auckland, and we also work with a small Bay of Islands operator whose boats I evaluate personally. It was the intention of Dream Yachts in New Caledonia to bring their boats to New Zealand in their low season, which coincides with the NZ summer season (NZ is too far south to get hurricanes). I have been driving the Dream Yachts application locally, and live in hope for Maritime NZ approval for chartering in the 2015 season.

Furthermore, we are fortunate that this independently-operated Beneteau 57 (2010) has gone into charter, with Sail Connections as booking agent. This well-appointed yacht has arrived from Australia and complies for charter to NZ survey. She will be available for charter in the Bay of Islands during the first half of summer 2014/15, then the Hauraki Gulf in late summer and into autumn.

So if New Zealand is on your list of cruising options for this northern winter, please register your interest now. I have a backlog of enquiries, and the good boats will soon be booked. Come on down, enjoy a great summer of sailing this fascinating coast. Experience the natural splendour of this land, discover something of our unique culture and history, and meet some friendly locals along the way.

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