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.