Monday, 26 March 2012

The Big Adventure - Bobbing about in the Bay of Islands

I wrote the previous post while bobbing about on a boat in the Bay ofIslands. And bobbing about we certainly did. Only we could have travelled tothe other side of the planet and found ourselves in a yacht in one of the world's best sailing locations (according to the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Companion to sailing) in the middle of an approaching cyclone. We have been sailing in the Mediterranean in May for the last 5 years and have always enjoyed super weather - arguably, not enough wind, but certainly lots of sunshine. So here we were, in the southern-hemisphere summer, sailing out of port in slate grey seas, driving rain and in urgent need of getting round a headland before the swell got too big for us to be able to do so. It was not an auspicious start! The added irony being that the north of the North Island, which is where the Bay of Islands is situated, is meant to be sub-tropical - the warmest part of NZ - but, in the whole 4 weeks we had been in the country, it had consistently been the coldest and wettest! Hey ho. 

So, as we battoned down the hatches and hauled in the fenders, expectations were not high. I worried that I only had a waterproof jacket of medium quality and that none of us had waterproof trousers while Captain N executed a sweet move using the bow-thruster he'd so longed for to get us out of our tight mooring. Dignity in tact, we motored towards the headland and wondered with some trepidation what seas we were going to find. 

While there was certainly a large swell building and the ride was a bit of a roller-coaster, we navigated it without drama and were soon in to quieter waters. Time to look at the charts and find a safe haven for the night as those winds from Australia built (major cyclone warning in Darwin).

Indeed, what we lacked in sunshine and warmth for the week, we made up for with learning some valuable lessons about choosing appropriate mooring sites. Looking back, we obviously did ok, as on the night of The Big Storm, when boats were being ripped off their anchorages and crashing into rocks, we were safely tucked up in bed with only the deafening sound of water on fibreglass to keep us awake. And the deafening crashes of thunder, and the sheet lightning. We did not get blown around, we stayed firmly on anchor and in the morning, the worst we had to worry about was the ingress of water into the boat (such was the force and volume of the rain) and the fact that the blue waters of the bay had turned to opaque Amazon River brown overnight. This was particularly disheartening as I had promised E that on this trip we would finally find her the white sands and turquoise waters she craved. Every part of NZ we'd been to where this should have been possible had just suffered torrential rains, turning everything shit brown. It was a bit disappointing.

And so we spent our days confined to the Bay of Islands rather than being able to do any longer distances, getting off to a lazy start and then finding another bay to anchor in, enjoying some good winds and good sailing on the way. We ate entirely on the boat as we had been warned that there was an absence of restaurants and settlements. We free-anchored in bays everynight as this was the only option. We messed around in the kayak and the dinghy - and nearly lost E and L one day...

....E had been determined to take the dinghy out after we'd anchored up on the second afternoon and L went along for the ride. I had noted that the wind was blowing off-shore and that we were one of the boats anchored furthest out in the bay. They set off reasonably well, but on their return E's efforts to reach the stern of the boat (pointing out to sea) were confounded by the winds. She told L to throw the rope to G, so G could catch it and tie them on, but G missed and the rope slapped into the water and was instantly out of reach. By the time N and I realised what was going on E was in full panic mode, rowing furiously, tiring rapidly and being blown further and further out to sea with L standing up in the boat being useless beyond telling E to row harder! We told her not to panic, to focus on the rowing but in the end, with a certain inevitability, Captain N had to strip off and dive in to rescue them. E came aboard covered in cold sweat, sobbing hysterically and visibly shaking. It was a lesson learnt, but it was a horrible one. I still feel slightly sick thinking about it, especially as I went out in the dinghy for a row about in much less demanding conditions and found myself struggling to get the bloody thing back to the boat. My palms were sore and my arms ached. I take my hat off to E - I realised what a phenomenal effort she had made and how exhausted and scared she must have been as she drifted further away from the security of the boat and her parents out towards a scary grey horizon! Darling girl.

Of course, once the drama was over and E had calmed down a bit, we sat around and reminisced about the time Captain N decided to jump off the back of an apparently barely moving yacht in the middle of the ocean and then found himself rather rapidly not actually being able to keep up with the barely moving yacht! Thankfully I had decided not to join him, or we would have been in a right pickle...More lessons learnt.

Captain N was determined to get us out of the sanctuary of the Bay and made a couple of forays out into the High Seas. It didn't last long - E was screaming withing minutes as she clung white-knuckled to the railings as we took on acute angles. I suggested quite firmly that he executes his desire for adventure on a boys' sailing trip some time in the future rather than in the bosom of his terrified family (E is keenly aware that our sailing experience is still relatively limited!). The situation was not helped by the fact that he helpfully pointed to a couple of black fins in the water and shouted 'Look! Dolphins!'. So we looked. But it wasn't dolphins. Dolphins come up for air. These fins did not, and they were behind eachother rather than side by side. Distinctly more evil. It made the need not to capsize rather more urgent and did nothing for E's enjoyment of swimming from the boat thereafter!

And so New Year's Eve came and went. Captain N made his 'famous' spaghetti bolognese. We cracked open some fizz and he made proclamations about how things were going to change when we got back to Blighty. (All the usual stuff that everyone says and never actually does. And so it has turned out to be. Nothing has changed - in fact we've seen even less of him since our return than usual as he's been travelling a lot as well as doing the usual 14 hour day. Still, the intention was good.) We went out on deck for midnight to watch distant fireworks and salute the stars but the moment was a little lost when E appeared from her cabin and then announced, just as the clock was striking midnight, that she needed a poo. Honestly. So 2012 instantly became 'Happy Poo Year!' The shape of things to come...

Mercifully, in the short term, things started to look up a bit. The skies, if not the air, cleared and we finally got some sunshine and turquoise water for the last day and a half, though it was still not particularly hot. We took the dinghy on a trip to a spit which revealed itself at high tide and gathered shells, and we took ourselves for some short walks ashore to take in the views. We hung out in a bird hide, we found a Maori cemetery high on a hill and we listened to all those exotic bird calls which for me were the soundtrack of New Zealand. But best of all we eventually found the dolphins for which the area is renowned. Literally on our sail back to port, as we rounded the headland which had been so unfriendly at the beginning of the week, now with sunshine glinting off calm waters, we spotted some fins. As we drew closer we saw more and more and was a huge pod of Bottlenose dolphins, so much larger than the Hector's dolphins of Akaroa, or the Dusky dolphins we swam with in Kaikoura. We stopped sailing, turned on the motor and then just followed them and observed them for the next couple of hours. It was quite the most magical and extraordinary experience that we have ever had - an utter privilege to be so up close and personal with these wonderful creatures in their natural environment. We watched them dancing and diving and jumping and playing. We took absurd amounts of photos and videos. We completely over-indulged to the point where we felt slightly queasy, it was such a rich spectacle. In the end, as the sun sank lower in the sky, we had to tear ourselves away in the knowledge that we would probably never see anything like this again in our lifetime.

And so the sun sank, too, on our Big Adventure in New Zealand. The trip I had waited so many years for, the trip which I did not want to end. N and I may never find time to get back there with all the other things to see and do with the remaining time we have on earth - the girls may well make it back, spurred on by their memories of the happy times they had here with their parents. I hope we have given them a gift which they will treasure.


Nutty Gnome said...

You may have had lousy weather but, my goodness, what an adventure too!

Me and Himself had a year out in a Land Rover driving to Nepal and back 25 years ago and I can still remember so many parts of that trip, people we met, places we stayed and so on - those memories will last forever just as these will for all of you!

Procrastinator extraodinaire said...

My youngest woukd be in heaven watching those dolphins. I am determined that this summer will not pass without him seeing them in Newquay ( Cardiganshire , they are in abundess there, but also often in hiding when we pitch up).xx

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