12 January 2014

A bit more about French Pass

I wrote a cruiser's wiki article which can be found here:


08 January 2014

Nelson to Lyttelton, via French Pass

The wind is howling outside at the moment, and a few of the yachties in the marine here in Lyttelton have "abandoned ship", and gone ashore to stay elsewhere for the night.  The winds are forecast to settle down a bit tonight so I will stay on board, and hope for the best.

The last leg of the journey to Lyttelton was done with just myself and Rob on board, as our Norwegian crewmates Jon and Monika had left the boat to party on in Nelson for the new year.  The plan was to head for French Pass on day 1, stay somewhere at anchor for the night, maybe head to Queen Charlotte sound for another night, and then south to Lyttelton.

As it so happened we were delayed in Nelson for a couple of reasons.  Firstly we had to do a few minor repairs, including purchasing a new anchor as my main anchor had its shackle break part way across the Tasman and was lost overboard.  Secondly, the weather forecast for a departure the weekend after we arrived wasn't good, and I was still naive enough at that stage to believe anything that came out of the NZ met service.

So we ended up leaving Nelson at 1pm on Monday 30th December, into what could best be described as a howling rainstorm (clear skies and light south westerlies had been forecast).  Unable to do more than motor sail slowly upwind with sheets in tight, we were clearly not going to make French Pass with the tide which was forecast for 7pm.  So instead we decided to head inshore to escape the worst of the weather (which had been north easterly all day, and was now turning northerly), and stayed overnight in Croiselles Harbour.

Croiselles is a pleasant little harbour almost devoid of human habitation on the eastern shores of Tasman Bay.  I take it that this side of Tasman Bay doesn't get the best weather, and so habitations are few and far between.  Anyway, it was very picturesque, although not on the same level as Lord Howe Island, and despite several southerly "bullets" during the evening and the next morning holding was good in Oyster Cove in about 8 metres.

Since the forecast for the next day was for strong north easterlies with rain and difficult conditions, it was a pleasant surprise (although shouldn't have been surprising at all really) to wake to a gentle south westerly and clear skies.  So we sailed most of the way to French Pass.

French Pass itself avoids going around the top of d'Urville Island, and further out into Cook Strait.  This would have (in theory) exposed us to worse weather and added about 80 nautical miles to the trip, so it was worth pursuing.  The difficulty with the pass is the strong tidal currents, meaning that (according to the guides) it can only be traversed within an hour of slack water, high or low tide.  We elected to pass just before slack water low tide, with the remnants of an outgoing tide to assist us.

My big regret was not setting up the video camera for this passage, it would have been well worth the effort.  However with the various requirements of getting through the pass, timing, making the necessary radio calls, checking wind speed and depth, I ran out of time to do so.

Making French Pass is a bit like white water rafting, in a much bigger boat.  The pass proper is no more than 50 or 100 metres wide, and only at the very centre of this (by my eyeball) was the water anything like calm enough to pass though.  So by this stage I had myself on helm, sails down, motor in gear, and Rob eyeballing everything in every direction to warn of dangers.

The centre of the pass was clean enough water, but immediately through the pass there were a number of large whirlpools, each about 20 metres across and going in a diagonal line directly across our path.  I headed for the outer edge of the furthest one and threw the helm across as the whirlpool pulled us around in the other direction, then kicked the engine to maximum revs and we were through.

Looking back through the pass I managed this one photo, showing a timber yacht attempting the pass just behind us.  The white water can be seen but believe me it's quite a different thing close up.

On the other side of the pass is this little settlement -- subsisting no doubt on salvage of the wreckage of any vessel foolish enough to attempt the pass other than at slack water.
The rest of the day, spent sailing across the top of the Marlborough Sounds, was relatively uneventful.  We had a pleasant tailwind so were able to enjoy some easy downwind sailing, catch up on some sleep (well I caught up on some, Rob seemed too caught up in the moment) and watch the sights.

Around Cape Jackson things started to get a bit more hairy.  The wind picked up, although it was still behind us.  We had been given some "local advice" to shoot between a lighthouse on a rock and Cape Jackson itself, however after seeing a 3 metre rolling surf between the two via the binoculars I decided that the entire cape needed to be given a big wide miss.  The wind shifted direction a few times as we headed across to Cape Koamaru, eventually turning in our favour as I was able to gybe down into Queen Charlotte Sound for a bit of lee, then bear off slightly to pass Cape Koamaru with the shifting wind without needing another gybe (gibing at 30 knots plus is never much fun and can be quite a dangerous manoeuvre).

After Cape Koamaru we were again in the lee of the island from the North Westerlies and despite the presence of the fearsome "brothers" we had some more good downwind sailing.  At this point I deployed the drogue for the tow generator for the second time in the trip (more on power generation later) and the batteries quickly filled up in response.

That situation continued until we passed Cape Campbell and were well on our way down the east coast of the South Island.  I got a bit of intermittent internet access and managed to post some rough locations to facebook to make up for the missing tracking link, and then I idly heard the word "gale warning" on the radio.  Not sure what weather area they were referring to, I called Marine Radio Wellington and was told that this meant us.

The wind stayed behind us mostly for a few more hours, although we were somewhat watchful about the speed, and had the genoa well reefed in.  I sent Rob off for a few hours sleep and kept watch through what I ascertained (from the GRIB data) would be the worst part of it, although the GRIB forecast didn't match what the warning on the radio was telling us -- the GRIB forecast 20 knots, the met service forecast 30 (from a different direction) and needless to say part way through the watch the wind hit 46 knots (that's about 80km/h in the new money).  At least the GRIB file had the wind direction correct, the met service forecast was incorrect in every possible way (let's not mention the forecast heavy rainshowers and poor visibility, which never arrived).

The worst of the gale being seen off, we then picked up a weather forecast for a 20 knot north easterly swinging north westerly for the rest of the trip.  That seemed good and pleasant enough, although we were then of course quickly greeted with a southerly front and 30 knot south westerlies.  This was about 20 miles south of Kaikoura.

We reefed in all possible sail and set in shore with a riding gib and reefed in mainsail, and so managed to avoid the worst of the swell and winds, and then continued to motor sail southerly for as long as we could.  The wind swung back to the west and we were eventually able to crack sheets and beam reach into Pegasus Bay.

The weather then eased back to the north east, so I set a line for Christchurch itself, and sat and watched the weather for a few hours while Rob slept.  Judging at that point (11pm on New Year's Day) that the weather was at its easiest, I got Rob up for a few hours' easy watch and headed for my cabin.  It took 5 minutes from that time for all hell to break loose.

The wind had swung ferociously around to the north west and picked up to just over 40 knots.  We had no alternative other than to drop the mainsail (difficult in the extreme in those conditions, I had to steer upwind with almost no sea room as we were close inshore), and bear off directly downwind to make Lyttelton.  Needless to say there was quite a bit of commentary on my part about the personal habits and family history of the staff members of the NZ met service (the radio forecast was still saying 20 knots north easterly with the gale warning cancelled until Thursday) and so once all was in order I went to bed again for a few hours much needed sleep.

Coming into Lyttelton was by comparison quite uneventful.  The wind had died completely by the time we were inshore and so we motored the remaining few miles into the harbour, furled in the remaining sail and called the marina, quarantine and then started tidying up the boat.

My local friends Nicola and Ivan were good enough to drop by in the afternoon and pick us up and take us home for a shower, some food and by 9pm Rob and I were both back in our bunks where we stayed until quite late the next day.

07 January 2014

Weather Forecasts. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

I have quite a bit of catching up to do in terms of posts, sorting out photos and videos of the trip, etc. I have also decided to do a few posts about things related to but not directly concerning the trip.

This one is a bit of a rant.  Be warned.

If you're a sailor (and I am one, so I know) then marine weather forecasts are critically important for your way of life.  In some cases, the correct marine weather forecast may decide whether you live or die.  So forgive me for being a bit brutally honest here.

This is the official website of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology:  http://www.bom.gov.au/ -- it gives a map, some major city day forecasts, and a set of large clickable (OK, butt ugly, but easy to find) buttons down at the bottom.  One of those buttons is marked "Marine".  That button takes me to a page sorted by state, and I can click on the "Local and Coastal Waters" forecast on the NSW tab, go to a map of NSW and see a map of sea areas.  The Hunter sea area is clearly shown on the map.

At sea, sailors tend to have very limited internet access.  They either rely on mobile phone connections that tend to drop in and out, or they rely on satellite phone, or they rely on VHF or HF weather forecasts.  Fortunately, I can tune my VHF radio to channel 16 (the standard calling channel) anywhere on the NSW coast, and hear a weather forecast broadcast approximately hourly.  If I am in the vicinity of the Hunter region, I will hear a weather forecast that commences with "Hunter, between Seal Rocks and Broken Bay, and 60 nautical miles seaward" (I have heard this forecast so many times I have the litany committed to memory).

This is the official web site of the "Meteorological Service of New Zealand Ltd" -- it's not really obvious from that name weather it's an official government bureau or whether it's a company that happens to provide weather forecasts, but oh well, this is the one I stumbled into:  http://www.metservice.com/national/home

When I hover my mouse over an area on that page (grrr ... hover over links often don't work with limited bandwidth) I see a sort of map thingy with sea areas marked on it.  Perhaps I don't see the map and just see a list of sea areas.  If I can't get the map up then I can listen to VHF channel 16, or maybe 21 or 22 (channels seem to vary up and down the coast) and hear a weather forecast for "Conway".  A friend of mine who happens to be familiar with the coastal regions of NZ says "well that must be the area off the Conway river in Canterbury".  Myself, as a visitor to NZ, I have no way of figuring out what area "Conway" is.  In fact, I passed through three areas of NZ coastal waters, listening to or attempting to fetch the forecast multiple times without really knowing what those areas were called.  None of the cruising books or guides I purchased gave a list of these areas.  There were no broadcasts of what these areas were on the VHF stations, and I finally resorted to calling Marine Radio Wellington on VHF 16 to ask what weather zone we were in (at the point of hearing a gale warning on the radio I figured it was best for us to know whether that applied to us or not).

So, between Nelson and Lyttelton we travelled through 3 sea areas.  We received, over a period of time, a total of 5 weather forecasts for those areas.  None of those forecasts gave either the correct wind direction or speed for any part of those areas that we travelled through for any part of the day in which we were travelling.  The forecast for day 1 leaving Nelson was for light south westerlies, we got strong north easterlies.  On day 2 we were forecast strong south westerlies and heavy rain -- we received light north westerlies and sunny conditions.  Sailing down the east coast we were forecast westerlies and got northeries, then we were forecast north easterlies changing to north westerlies and got north westerlies changing to south westerlies.  None of the forecast wind strengths were accurate (forecasts can be out by 40% in gusts, we assume this, but the forecasts were frequently out by 100% or more).  It was as if we were sailing in one country and receiving weather forecasts for a different country.

Yes, I know NZ weather is changeable.  I know it can be patchy in places.  However, at one point (just south of Kaikoura) we were hit by a southerly front.  I could see the frontal clouds approaching for a few hours before.  I speculated how much rain would be involved.  I suspected that the winds would turn sharply south west, and intensify.  This was information I gathered by looking out the window at the clouds.  Apparently, the Meteorological Service of New Zealand Ltd doesn't have windows, because they were unable to predict the front.  A southerly front (northerly front in the northern hemisphere) is the easiest weather system to predict -- it is preceded by high cirrus clouds and contains a band of strong winds and rain followed by clear, windy, cold weather.  This is basic high school science project weather forecasting.

The marine weather forecasts I was given seemed to be wind averages over a 12 or 24 hour period.  This isn't really suitable as a coastal weather forecast, and in an area with winds and weather as changeable as the coastal regions of the South Island of New Zealand, it's not really a useful forecast at all.

At various stages of the trip I was downloading GRIB data.  These are digital weather forecasts that can be overlaid onto an electronic marine chart.  The GRIB files I were using were supplied by NOAA, which is a US weather agency.  The data in those files was significantly more accurate than the marine weather forecast given by the NZ met service web site or by the VHF marine weather broadcasts.  At this point I have to question the existence of the NZ met service -- if an overseas agency can provide data significantly more accurate to local conditions than your own data, then why do you provide your own data?

So, there are clearly some things that need changing in the NZ marine weather forecasting system:
  • Make the web site actually navigable, paying attention to potential users of that web site (sailors who may be some distance off shore while navigating the site).  A useful mobile site might be of some use.
  • The weather forecast zones are clearly too large.  There was no relationship between the "Conway" weather north of Kaikoura and the "Conway" weather in Pegasus Bay, they should obviously be separate weather zones.
  • Make the weather zones known to users of the service, include the description of the zones in the weather broadcasts, and include a guide to the weather zones in some way accessible to sailors visiting NZ for the first time.
  • Make the weather forecasts themselves more granular.  If it's known that a southerly front with winds around 35 knots is going to pass through a weather zone around 4pm then include this information in the weather forecast, not just give a rough overview of the average winds during the day.
  • Stop smoking whatever it is you're smoking and give some forecasts that are approximately correct at the very least.  If NOAA can get it right then the met service should be able to get at least close, considering that most of the same data is available.
OK, end of rant.  In general, sailing the NZ coast was a generally pleasant experience, in spite of the efforts of the met service.

04 January 2014

Leg 2 -- Lord Howe Island to Nelson, New Zealand

This was the longest part of the journey so far, and also hardest to plan -- 8 days at sea means that the weather forecast on leaving may not be met for the entire journey.  It was also the saddest part because we were leaving a wonderful relaxing time at Lord Howe Island to venture out into the Tasman Sea again.

Fortunately I had no further recurrence of my kidney stones while at Lord Howe Island, and armed with extra painkillers just in case, we were ready to sail.  On Monday I had asked at the meteorology office what the likely weather window was for the trip, and they replied that it was probably going to be late on Wednesday or early on Thursday.  With a high tide due at 10am Thursday we decided to aim for that.  A trip back to the met office on Wednesday confirmed that.

I have to give a big shout out and kudos to the guys at the Lord Howe Island met office.  It's a very isolated station being manned by just 1 or 2 people at a time out in the middle of the Tasman, but they had all of the latest computer and weather instruments, and armed with a couple of different possible weather models they were able to give me pretty detailed sailing instructions for up to a week in advance.  In particular at one point, about 4 days leaving the island, I was able to check the model they gave me and say "well, we were forecast to have 25 knot north westerly winds about now, and we have 24 knot north westerly winds".  Not bad for any time in advance (and more about the NZ meteorology office later) but pretty excellent going for those guys.  They were also very helpful, friendly, and offered advice about the possible deviations from the weather models that were likely to happen along the route (including one southern ocean low pressure system that could possibly come up further north than forecast) and what to do about it.

Hanging about the island for an extra couple of days allowed us to fix a problem that Blazz was having with his island radio -- the satellite receiver wasn't working.  Rob and I quickly diagnosed the issue being a faulty connection to the LNB on the top of the satellite dish and we managed a quick and dirty repair to it and got things going again.

Also, on the cute side, we found this little fellow, a baby red-tailed tropicbird:
The sailing instructions from Lord Howe Island as provided by the met office were to motor-sail south as far as 33-34 degrees, where we should find the wind swinging to the west.  Then maintain a latitude around 35 degrees following the west/north westerlies until we discovered (about Monday of the following week) what that southern ocean low was going to do, then if it wasn't going to come too far up the NZ west coast just make a beeline for Nelson.

Those instructions were pretty much spot on.  We motor-sailed past Balls Pyramid, which looks like this:
It's a spire of rock about 20 miles south of Lord Howe Island, and it just sticks straight up from the ocean floor.  The consensus on board is that if you're an evil wizard or mad scientist looking for a hideout, this is pretty much what you're after.

I've never sailed that close to it before, getting close enough to get some shots of the rock formations on the side of it and a small amount of vegetation that grows there:
Sailing from Lord Howe Island was much more pleasant than the first half of the Tasman trip.  We had calm weather, settled seas and plenty of sunshine.  The crew were pretty relaxed:
This was fairly typical of the weather for the first few days at least:

Wednesday night (25th December, Xmas Day in some cultures) gave us the only slightly difficult bit of sailing for the trip.  We hit some easterly winds of about 15 knots, about 80 miles out from the NZ coast.  Associated with those winds, oddly enough, were seas of about 6 metres.  Oddly enough, because 80 miles isn't usually enough fetch for winds of as light as 15 knots to throw up seas that big, so I figured something was odd - we were forced to motor directly into the wind because of the size of the waves and the swell conditions and I figured there was either some kind of disturbance or we were motoring into a sizeable storm (nothing like that showed up on the GRIB weather files which I'd been downloading via the satellite phone).  I downloaded an extra weather report just to make sure, and there wasn't anything forecast, which really only added to my concern.  So I sent the on watch crew back to bed and stood on deck for a watch period to see what it was doing.  Jon who was the other experienced sailor on board came on watch around 11pm and I gave him instructions to wake me at the end of his shift if things hadn't calmed down.  Fortunately enough by 3am things were calm again and we were able to turn northerly a bit to round Cape Farewell, and Farewell Spit.

I'm guessing that Farewell Spit isn't something that too many people see from the seaward side, it's pretty unremarkable:
It's just a low lying sand spit that curls around the top of the Tasman Bays as you head into the Cook Strait itself.  That construction in the photo is one of the "lighthouses" we saw marked on NZ charts.  When we see a lighthouse marked on a chart in Australian waters they are usually fairly sizeable constructions, with a light visible for dozens of miles or so.  NZ lighthouses (or at least what is marked on the charts as lighthouses) tend to be small boxy things with a light that may or may not be visible at all.

We rounded Farewell Spit for more cruisy sailing into first Golden Bay and then Tasman Bay on our approach to Nelson.  Seas were really calm by this stage and we were alternately motoring and sailing south towards Nelson in light conditions, although not as warm or as sunny as the first part of the journey.  Even the Norwegians felt the need for long sleeves:

However after such a long journey, some of the crew were completely exhausted:
We arrived in Nelson late in the evening of the 27th December, and were met by a couple of courteous yet efficient customs and quarantine staff.  That evening we were all thankful of a wash, a meal on dry land, and a stable night's sleep.

03 January 2014

Leg 1 -- Newcastle to Lord Howe Island

SV Chiara Stella set off from Newcastle NSW with myself and 4 crew -- Jon and Monika (from Norway), Rob (from Sydney) and Bandit (Ship's Cat).  Our sailing instructions were to head east until we pick up better winds, then use those to reach north east to Lord Howe Island.

It was a fairly rough trip -- not what I would call excessively rough, but with consistent 3 - 4 metre waves it was probably the most consistently rough trip I'd had out on the Tasman.

The first few days I had a recurrence of an old medical condition that kept me confined to my cabin for the first two evenings, but after some medication we got things under control (ably assisted by Jon and Monika who were coincidentally both doctors) and things were plain sailing from there.

On the evening of the 10th December it became apparent that we'd arrive at Lord Howe Island at about 2am the next day, which isn't feasible because of the lack of leading lights and the shallowness of the entry channel.  So instead of heading to the island that night and heaving to outside the channel we decided to heave to there and then and spend 6 hours sleeping, after which we then proceeded to the channel entry which we made about 9am on the 11th.  Entry into the channel was without incident but there was a bit of confusion about which buoy we were to pick up.

On Friday the 12th I headed for the meteorology office on the island to pick up a weather report, which read in brief "don't go anywhere for a few days, it's all gales out there" so we decided to stay for the weekend and into the following week.

Lord Howe Island is a very picturesque place, if you've never been.  It looks like this from up above (this photo taken from atop the Goat House Track, which leads about half way up the smaller of the two mountains at the south of the island):

In fact with beaches like this, one could wonder why we would ever leave:

Part of the fun on the island was meeting a guy called Blazz who runs the radio station on the island.  It's got a real 60's pirate radio feel to it, here is Blazz in his studio:

The studio is full of records, furniture that could only be described as "funky" and wall art left by all and sundry:

We ended up staying at the island until Thursday of the week after we arrived, which was the 19th. This was a bit longer than we'd intended to stay, but it allowed us to chill out and gave time for Jon and Monika to climb Mount Gower, plus time for us to explore various parts of the island.  Caroline and others might recall the fish feeding frenzy that is Ned's beach, I got a bit of video from that this time and I'll try to upload those once I figure out uploading them from my video camera to blogspot.

Anyway, that's enough of an update for this time, I'll continue with the trip details to Nelson and Lyttelton shortly.