New Zealand - Discovering South Island! Part 1

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3,000 nautical miles, 3 months of sailing... Destination? Fiordland! It has been more than 2 years since Cat’leya took refuge in New Zealand... From Auckland to Cape Kari Kari, we discovered a magnificent coastline and an exceptional sailing environment. The trips ashore to Rotorua, New Plymouth and so many others gave me another insight into this green country, but the story couldn’t stop there... The South Island is a complete mystery to me, and being a curious person, I have read about journeys to this other New Zealand of which the gem is the Fiordland. It is a very isolated region, located in the southeast of the South Island of New Zealand. The appeal of Fiordland comes from a combination of factors - a wild and unspoilt environment, magnificent landscapes where the mountains meet the sea, a rich history linked to the exploits of Captain Cook and other explorers, seal and whale hunters and the era of the gold and coal mines... Of course, the sailing conditions in these southern latitudes are much more rigorous than those of Sydney, an easy reference point in the southern hemisphere. We go from 33° South to 45°. Yes, here we are between the Roaring Forties and the Furious Fifties, but it is a new adventure that I decided to experience and one that I have been preparing for several months. The El Niño/La Niña oscillation has a considerable effect on the weather in this area too.

An unforgettable sunset from Port Ligart


El Niño and La Niña dictate the weather

During El Niño periods, the ocean is colder in the western South Pacific. Low pressure activity is weak while high pressure dominates the central and northern Tasman Sea. New Zealand is frequently affected by cold fronts coming from the Tasman Sea on southwest winds. North Island is dominated by high pressure while South Island is windier and temperatures are lower. Conversely, during La Niña events, the ocean is warmer in the Coral Sea and generally the tropical west of the South Pacific; this warmth leads to the formation of storms from the northern Tasman Sea to southwest Fiji moving south or southeast towards the North Island while high pressure settles over the South Island. My advice? During La Niña, go to South Island, during El Niño spend the summer in North Island. 2022 was a predominantly La Niña year and we would see great weather, few gales and only 6 days of rain, a real bonus when visiting Fiordland!


Which route should we take?

The first question that arises when touring an island is to know which direction to take... The western route (counter-clockwise), although much shorter in distance, offers very little shelter. The south-west winds and the consequent swell from the fifties latitudes make the eastern coastal route of New Zealand more attractive (clockwise). This is true until Stewart Island; then joining Fiordland by the Foveaux Strait (between the South Island and Stewart Island) is another story.... The Southern Alps also have a major influence because they are a real barrier that the winds have to circumvent... Thus, a north-westerly wind turns north in the north of Fiordland, then turns north-west again towards Puysegur in the south of Fiordland before turning westerly in the Foveaux Strait. We chose the west coast option and we were lucky because the whole trip could be done under sail.

The sailboats we met going up the west coast did a lot of motoring... It took us two days to reach New Plymouth from the north and two days from Nelson to the first fjord, Milford Sound - about 400 miles each way. The winds were moderate and the southwest swell was never an obstacle. Of course, we had to be prudent when it came to weather windows, as they were short-lived, given the frequency of fronts passing between the highs. These fronts are often accompanied by stormy northwesterly winds followed by rain and then a south-westerly shift.


The Dreaded Tasman Sea

The trip up to Cape Reinga took place in good conditions with a south-east flow, but, from North Cape, during the first 100 miles of our downstream trip, we faced rough and turbulent waters, as we had expected in the Tasman Sea. On the afternoon of January 13, we crossed North Cape and then Cape Reinga, and witnessed the famous Colombia Bank and the waves breaking on the shallows; we were far from the “idyllic” landscape that we had enjoyed on a beautiful day in September during a road trip... The Tasman Sea doesn’t disappoint: a south-west swell arrived to counter the one created by the big low-pressure system that was following us and made our progress rather uncomfortable... On the morning of the 15th, we saw Mount Taranaki; its summit was still partly covered with snow, and it towered over New Plymouth, a city we had just enough time to reach before the wind turned to the south and halted our progress. After a well-deserved night’s rest, we set sail for the Marlborough Sounds. We motored down the coast, accompanied by Mount Taranaki that we kept an eye on from our port side. The wind shift forecasted for the evening - turning from south-east to east - enabled us to spend the night under sail and to make a quick crossing. Then it was back up Pelorus Sound and into Havelock marina where Cat’leya was given a good clean up!


Ready for new adventures!

The Marlborough Sounds are a labyrinth of meandering rivers carved into the northern terrain of the South Island. Pelorus Sound is the longest, and winds the 35 mi (55 km) to Havelock - the Kiwi mussel capital - and has many branches including Kenepuru Sound. Sailing in these magnificent landscapes is unfortunately often impossible... because of the lack of wind or because of its sudden changes of direction. World’s End might sound a bit frightening, but there’s nothing to worry about - on the contrary, it’s a haven of tranquility, sheltering many sailboats. We are there in company of Nemo Sumo, Thierry’s powercat with whom we are sharing this new adventure.

Further north, Port Ligart is at the entrance of Pelorus Sound. You have to check out the many mussel farms which occupy the shores. The Maori developed this industry to allow their community to live on these lands and to ensure them jobs. Today it is a thriving industry and an exporter.

Urville Island was named in honor of Jules Dumont d’Urville, the French explorer who first discovered this pass in the first half of the 19th century. Earlier, Captain Cook had mapped this land as part of South Island... Wilder than Pelorus Sound, the mountains that make up Urville Island are more arid in this season and offer a palette of colors - from yellow ochre to green - that contrasts with the dark Tasman Sea. We progressed along the coast, mooring at the end of the bay in Port Hardy. A little further south, Greville Bay offers an anchorage with a freshwater lake at the entrance. This will be our last stop before Nelson.

When it’s not raining, Nelson is a pleasant town with its many cycle paths (which is rather unusual here), some colonial style houses and the Queen Charlotte Garden which borders the river that runs through the city.


The Sun Changes Everything

The Lagoon 52S alone at anchor, at the mouth of the Wild Native River. To be exact, we are in George Sound, less than 8 miles south of Bligh Sound.

This city is reputed to be the sunniest in New Zealand with 2,500 hours of sunshine per year; we had four days of continuous rain at anchor with strong winds...

Nelson is the gateway to the Abel Tasman Park - it is a magnificent site for hiking. Huts are booked a year in advance. A weather window finally opened and allowed us to go down the west coast of South Island to Milford Sound, the first fjord in the north of Fiordland. We left Torrent Bay to sail around Sand Pitt, a spit of dune that would lead us to Cape Farewell.

The wind was strong, but we did not have to deal with the 30 knot gusts that had been forecast in the GRIB files... The wind was from three quarters astern which meant that we could pass Cape Farewell at a good speed. Then the sandstone cliffs gave way to a foggier landscape. We set the course towards the open sea to be in a good position for the changeover planned the next day. Rain accompanied us throughout the trip until the morning when, little by little, we were able to discover the coast thanks to a bit of sunshine.

Two days of sailing later, we arrived at Martin’s Bay, where a Māori community lived from 1650 and which was also one of the sites of the first English settlers. They did not live there for long because of the isolation and the difficult conditions in these regions; we were already at 44° South latitude... I had been amazed by this bay which I had seen in a documentary about Fiordland. The sun brought a new and much more cheerful light than the one I remembered. The entrance of Milford Sound appeared already, the weather was nice and I didn’t recognize the dark, wet and foggy landscapes that I had seen in the aforementioned documentary. Everything seemed to me to be luminous but rocky, wild and especially very different from what I had seen so far. All around us were peaks, some of them over 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) high, from which waterfalls, and even glaciers, flowed. With this kind of light, I can’t imagine why this tormented landscape, shaped by glaciers 20,000 years ago, is called the “Shadow land“... Since 1990, the Fiordland region has been part of the World Heritage List. Severe restrictions guarantee the durability of these sites and are accompanied by policies concerning fishing, marine reserves and the protection of certain species, both marine and terrestrial. The trip up the fjord takes an hour and we met up with Nemo-Sumo, our fellow traveler, at anchor in Deep Water Basin, at the very end of Milford Sound.

This place also marks the arrival of the famous Milford Track hiking trail, 33.5 miles through the mountains, which can be done in several days thanks to the huts dotted along the way. We followed it to the first waterfall along the river “Arthur rive“ that we had explored by dinghy the day before.


Deep Water Basin, in Milford Sound : this anchorage is very well protected from the gusting winds that can be vicious here...


Watch out for the sand flies!

Bottle Nose dolphins greeted Cat’leya at the entrance of Bounty Heaven...

Here, we have to deal with the dreaded «sand flies». The bites of these omnipresent stinging midges are painful, so much so that they can make some people give up on shore excursions... We were not really bothered by them. Sand flies disappear as soon as it is windy; otherwise, a good insect repellent and an automatic insecticide diffuser on board and in the cockpit soon solve this problem!

From north to south, from Milford to Dusky via Doubtful Sound, the environment evolves from a mountainous and rocky landscape, sometimes steep, to a feeling of immensity where the high mountains only act as a backdrop for the numerous inlets and islands that separate them. The term “sound“ which in English designates an arm of the sea shaped by the rivers and then submerged when the land level was lowered is misleading in this area. It is indeed a fjord carved out by the glaciers about 20,000 years ago.

In Milford Sound, you just have to look up to see several glaciers and their eternal snows peaking at nearly 9,000 feet (2,700 m). At these latitudes, 45° South, the weather is not always kind; the succession of weather systems bring their share of gales and precipitation. But here, rain is a source of beauty. As soon as it appears, a multitude of waterfalls burst out on the sides of the mountains. The light, streaked with clouds, dramatically illuminates the landscape. Then, when the front has passed, the clarity of the sky sublimates nature. The latter is quite generous for the sailor too: lobsters (which can be caught by scuba diving), blue cod, bluefin tuna, scallops, abalone, mussels, deer for the hunters, etc... There is really no need to fill your freezers before setting off!

Bligh Sound is 17 nautical miles south of Milford. Travelling from one fjord to the other is therefore easy, even under sail... This fjord was named by Captain John Grono, whose boat was called Governor Bligh in honor of the Governor of New South Wales, William Bligh. We progressed between two walls of mountains and vegetation towards the end of the fjord, Bounty Heaven. Some bottlenose dolphins came to welcome us. They are huge here! The seabed rises abruptly where it meets the estuary of the Wild Natives River, due to the accumulation of alluvial deposits that have formed a solid mud.

Fiordland is also a fantastic fishing destination. No need to fill the freezer on board before setting off!


An unusual pair - Under sail and under motor!

In 2020, during the first lockdown measures, I met Thierry, a Frenchman of New Caledonian origin who owned a motor catamaran that was the same size as Cat’leya. Like me, he found himself «blocked» and we started to sail together... I must admit that at the beginning, I was a little skeptical about the sail-motor «combination «, but I soon realized that we both had the same urge to discover and explore... Thierry usually does between 8 and 9 knots, and we could easily cruise together. After a few months spent together around Great Barrier, Mercury and the Bay of Islands the marriage was «consummated» so to speak... We planned to sail to more distant destinations and why not a tour of New Zealand with the Fiordland as a highlight?

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