Saturday, May 17, 2014

Living the Dream

It's 2:10 in the morning as I sit and listen to the persistent banging of a halyard coming from the foredeck and the low moan of something stretching to it's absolute max. That something is the harness on our chain that keeps the pressure off our windlass when we are anchored. I'm trying not to imagine it breaking - a real possibility even though it's 5/8" 3-strand line with chafe protection. It's under incredible load as the wind has been howling in the 30's for over 12 hours and the fetch is causing the boat to hobby horse like a bucking bronco. Something else bangs in the dark and I quickly glance up at the wind meter......36.8 knots. Well, I least it's not 40 knots.....yet.

I'm on anchor watch and as the wind gusts again what I'm REALLY thinking is how thankful I am to be here. That we are not at sea in these conditions, out there in this storm where some of my friends are right now. I send up a prayer that they have made it far enough to avoid the worst of it. I'm worried sick for them, but trying to keep the faith as they are excellent sailors.

We are anchored in a tiny little outpost called Minerva Reef. It's a popular stopover for cruisers making the long passage between New Zealand and Fiji and a good spot to duck into during a storm. Not that you can actually hide, since there is no real land to speak of. It's simply a low-lying ring of reef that is almost completely awash at high tide, but just high enough to keep the huge rolling waves temporarily at bay. It's about as close as you can get to anchoring in the middle of the Pacific ocean and I'm incredibly thankful to be here.

As the fetch from the waves hits our cockpit enclosure because the tide is high and the waves are growing, I try not to let the noise overwhelm me. I try to distract myself from thoughts of the other boats breaking free and hitting us or of our boat coming loose and crashing onto the reef....of losing everything. So far we are all staying put and the holding is very good - I just need to get through this night. I'm not safe at home, the boat is not tied to the dock and I can't walk away no matter how scary it gets. This is the life I have chosen and there is no other place to be tonight other than out here in the middle of the ocean. And so I write this post to help the time pass and to give you a chance to see another side of our life at sea.

Just another day living the dream. Living the dream.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Birthdays and Leaving New Zealand

The birthday boy with Cape Brett in the background.
On the 26th of April we officially rounded "Cape Brett", which is basically the front door to one of New Zealand's most prized cruising grounds - the Bay of Islands.  What's the big deal about the 26th you might ask?  Well my friends, it just so happens to be Brett's birthday!  And we couldn't help but take a photo of Cape Brett with Birthday Brett!

How many candles on that cake Brett???
After firmly setting the hook at the highly recommended Urupukapuka Bay (how fun is that name to say?) with our buddies on Mystic Moon nearby, we gathered to celebrate the auspicious occasion.  There was a lot of toasting, a bit of candle blowing (damn those trick candles anyway, right Brett?) and generally a lot of merriment.  Especially since Mystic had brought along some very nice whiskey!  A big thanks to Kathy and John for joining us and for being a part of a really fun night.

Having fun with John and Kathy from Mystic Moon.
We've spent the last week ticking last minute items off the pre-departure list, we've had plenty of time to prepare and consider our upcoming passage.  Countless hours have been spent looking at and analyzing the grib (weather) files, considering our options and talking to other cruisers.  It's hard not to be a little worried as this is a tough piece of water to get across, but we are as ready as we can be and it looks like our window is finally here.

As I sit in Opua trying to get our blog up to date before we leave tomorrow for Fiji, I've spent a lot of time reflecting and reliving our time here in New Zealand.  While it's been a little tough to swallow how ridiculously expensive it is here (imagine spending an entire years budget in just 6 months), we've also had some amazing esperiences and cruised in some beautiful areas.  I have been truly impressed with the locals we've met here - they are funny and kind, but also will tell you EXACTLY what they think about pretty much anything.  No political correctness here - and that's really refreshing!  They will not hesitate to invite you into their home and their lives, even when you've just barely met.  Again - refreshing!

So while we are now significantly poorer financially for having come to New Zealand, the friends we've made, the places we've seen and the time spent cruising this beautiful north island were worth every penny to me.  And while I am very ready to go, I will still miss it here after I'm gone. 

Goodbye New Zealand!

Cruising Great Barrier Island

How could something so cute be endangered?
We arrived at Great Barrier Island in early April – fairly far along in the fall season.  For those of you who don’t know, New Zealand has opposing seasons to the United States – so their summer runs from December through February.  Wouldn't it be weird to have Christmas in the middle of summer?  In Seattle we all know how wonderful it is when we get a true “Indian Summer” – especially if it lasts into October!  I’m happy to report that is exactly what we experienced at Great Barrier Island.  While the days were getting shorter and it would definitely cool off the minute the sun went down, the days were mostly sunny, warm and wonderful.

Early morning fog lifts at Wairahi Bay
Our stay at Great Barrier focused completely on the area around Port Fitzroy.  From Waiheke it’s about a 7 hour sail and thankfully ours was uneventful.  Our first stop was Oneura Bay, located on the western side of the island.  When we first arrived the bay was perfectly flat and completely deserted.

Unfortunately we found out that was likely because it gets a little rolly at night.  I felt like I was back in the La Cruz area with all the rocking and rolling we did!   In the morning we both looked at each other and said enough of that!  So off we went, motoring the short distance to Wairahi Bay where we suspected our friends on Mazu were anchored.  We were happy to find not only them, but our friends on Exit Strategy too and happy hour was quickly organized for that evening.  Thanks to Mazu for hosting - it was great to catch up with both boats since we hadn’t seen them since Tonga.

Unfortunately the next day I came down with a minor cold, so Brett had to go hiking without me.  While I was definitely sorry to miss his trip up the Wairahi River (which sounded pretty great) I will admit to enjoying a lazy day of reading and napping all by myself.  Thankfully I was fully recovered in just a few days and was soon investigating the area on my inflatable paddleboard.  Even though the water was pretty murky I spotted three different manta rays within about 20 minutes.  Cool!

Hiking up the Wairahi River
We spent four nights in Wairaahi bay, but eventually decided we should probably see something else in the area, so we started up the motor and reset the hook in nearby Stony Bay.  This spot is exactly the kind of place Brett and I love – a tiny little nook that you can tuck away in that is small enough that no one else can anchor right next to you.  Absolute bliss!  It’s amazing how much this area reminded us of cruising in the northwest – especially up north in the Broughtons.  We felt right at home….except……there are penguins here!  Yes - actual penguins!  How cool is that?  They are called Blue Penguins (Korora) and are very small – maybe 8-12 inches long – but boy do they make a racket as the sun goes down!  It’s pretty funny to listen to them and you can almost imagine they are bellied up to the bar boasting to all of their buddies about the adventures they had that day.  They are that loud!

Who knew this little guy could be so loud!
While in Stony Bay we reunited with some new AND old friends.  After our first night we were joined by both Katie M II and Mystic Moon.  Martin and Angela (Katie M) were nice enough to come over and tell the rest of us all about Fiji, including loaning us some charts that we photographed and put on our iPads (don’t you just LOVE technology!).  It was great information and got all of us very excited to get there.  In fact, we were so excited that that we’ve decided NOT go back to Tonga and just go straight to Fiji.

How cute is this Brown Teal Duck???
Since the wind was forecast to turn around we had to move again, so all three boats moved over to Kaiaraara Bay before the first big blow was supposed to come through.  Since Exit Strategy was also there we hosted everyone on Bella Vita for drinks.  Yes – it’s true – we CAN actually fit 8 in our cockpit and a good time was had by all.

We ended up meeting a fascinating local – a Brown Teal Duck (Pateke), which is actually endangered.  This little guy was so cute we were immediately taken in by him.  They are amazingly friendly – especially when you…..ummmm….feed them.  Our little buddy popped by to see us every day and he definitely had our number.  This was clearly not his first rodeo and he was highly skilled at working the anchorage.  But damn he was adorable!

The amazing Kaiaraara Dam
There are some fantastic hikes to do in this area – the island is just covered with an amazing trail system.  I continue to be  astounded at how much time and effort the Kiwi’s put into maintaining hiking (trekking) trails all over the country.  We took a great hike up to the Kaiaraara Dam – an old dam used in the early 1900s to push logs down the river to the bay below.  While we didn’t make it all the way up to the top of the mountain (ran out of daylight) we did make it to the dam and were VERY impressed with the feat of engineering it proved to be. 

Brett crossing a huge suspension
bridge while hiking up to the dam.
Sadly, our days at Great Barrier had to come to a close.  They were forecasting a big storm (40-45 knots) and we decided we didn’t want to get caught at GBI for it.  The time had come to head back to Whangarei for final provisioning before sailing north to Opua, so off we went two days before the bad weather was forecast to hit. 

Unfortunately the 15-20 knots of wind showing for our trip across ended up being more like 25-35 with extremely lumpy seas (imagine being inside a washing machine and you’ll know what it was like).  Since it was only an 8 hour trip I had decided I would be fine without seasickness pills.  BIG MISTAKE!  I was fine for the first couple of hours, but suffice it to say the next five hours were pure misery.  I have NEVER been that seasick in my life!

Feeling GREAT while hiking!
For those of you who have never been really seasick (I’m not just talking a little queasy here), let me describe what it feels like – at least for me.  First my head starts to feel a little funny – almost like a sinus headache.  Then my stomach starts to feel off with added pressure in the head.  All I want to do is sleep.  Then the nausea gets much worse and I head for the rail, hoping it’s short lived.  After a couple bouts of this I realize I am freezing cold and no matter how many blankets or coats I wrap up in, I just can’t get warm.  It’s shocking how quickly you can go from fine to feeling really, really weak.  It can be completely debilitating.

I don't like being completely useless as a first mate and Brett hated watching me feeling so miserable.  Suffice it to say that I've learned my lesson about assuming I’ll be fine just because it’s a "short" trip.  From now on I WILL take the drugs, no matter how short the trip – thank you very much!  But the thing that really gets me fuming?  I’ve been getting worse instead of better!  WTF???  But it’s true!  I never used to get sea sick and have done countless trips with no problems.  And yet the longer I’ve been out cruising the more issues I’ve had – even in conditions I used to scoff at!  How bizarre (and frustrating!) is that?

This is how they build some bridges,
one piece at a time.  Impressive!
I’m happy to report that we did eventually make it into Marsden Cove without me going overboard or anything breaking on Bella Vita.  And the predicted big storm did come and it was just as bad (if not worse) than predicted, so even though we had a terrible, nasty trip, we were glad we went when we did as it could have been much worse.

Regardless of how it ended, we LOVED cruising Great Barrier Island and only wished we had more time to spend there exploring all the nooks and crannies it had to offer.  Maybe some day we’ll be back to do just that. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Finally Cruising New Zealand!

The view from Cable Bay Vineyard
A classic example of a one-way bridge in New Zealand
seen while hiking.  These are found everywhere!
After many, many weeks spent working on the boat and getting it back into ship shape condition after almost two years of cruising, it was time to leave Whangarei and FINALLY get out and do some exploration of the great Hauraki Gulf.  So we waited for high tide and off we went down the long Hatea River and back out into the Pacific Ocean once again.  It had been just over 4 months since Bella Vita had passed through Bream Bay after traveling all the way from Tonga and she felt like she was chomping at the bit to get back out there.  We were happy to oblige.

A view of Sandy Bay
Our first stop was little Kawau Island, about 40 miles south of Whangarei Head and about 20 miles north of Auckland.  Kawau Island is slightly famous among cruisers as this is where Lin and Larry Pardey have a home where they spend the majority of their time when not traveling.  For those who don’t know them, they are probably two of the most well known American cruisers of all time – having traveled over 200,000 miles by boat – all under 30 feet with no engine!  Not exactly my choice of how to cruise, but you have to respect people that have seen that much water under their keel.  We happened to anchor in the bay in front of their house (North Cove) and through a series of coincidences, ended up actually meeting them.  While we didn’t spend a lot of time together, they seemed nice and were certainly kind and very interesting to talk to.

Islington Bay on Motutapu Island before the hordes
from Auckland descended - people outside Auckland
call them JAFA's (just another #$%^ Aucklander).
After a few lovely days at Kawau, we made our way down to Gulf Harbor Marina to take care of a few last projects that we couldn’t finish in Whangarei – namely a problem with our genset and another issue with our radar.  Thankfully, we were able to take care of both issues quickly and also got to enjoy some time visiting with some friends that left the year before we did.  Next stop – Motutapu Island!

The back side of the gun battery on Motutapu Island
Where the gun sat, looking out towards the Pacific Ocean.
Motutapu is just a short 5 miles or so from Auckland, so you can imagine how many boats pop over for the weekend.  That said, we were lucky enough to spend some time there during the week when it wasn’t as crowded.  We actually stayed at three different spots – Sandy Bay, Waikalabubu Bay and Islington Bay – all of which were pretty great in their own ways.  But the best thing about Motutapu Island are the hikes you can do from almost anywhere you decide to anchor!  Once again, New Zealand displayed the amazing array of hiking trails that are kept up almost anywhere you find yourself and we definitely took advantage.  The coolest thing to do (IMHO) is to visit the Motutapu "counter-bombardment” Battery – an old gun station that was build in 1937/38.    There were two huge gun sites, long since abandoned, but still interesting to see.  Unfortunately (or fortunately!) the site never saw any action and was deconstructed after the end of World War II.  The best part was exploring the pitch black ammunition magazines that had been build underground – pretty neat how them made that all work.

Looking down into one
of the magazine areas.

After thoroughly exploring Motutapu, we made our way over for a week or so at Waiheke Island – located just a little to the southeast.  What a great island to explore – so many different things to see!  Being a short ferry ride from Auckland and absolutely chock full of great wineries it is a VERY popular spot for city dwellers to get away for a day or two.  We stayed in three different bays on Waiheke – Oneroa, Rocky and Man O’War Bay.  We loved all three for very different reasons.  Oneroa was our first stop and this is located right off the main “town” on the island (aptly named Oneroa!).  Think quaint but upscale seaside village and you will have the picture in your head.  Very sweet with lots of little shops, caf├ęs and expensive restaurants, not to mention a bus service that will take you to one of the dozen or so wineries on the west half of the island - how great is that?  The all day bus pass is only $14 NZD.

Reading to start tasting!
We did decide we should check out a few of those wineries, so with our friends from Mersoleil we set out for the Cable Bay vineyard – about a 15-20 minute walk out of town.  What a spectacular setting and some beautiful architecture showcasing some fairly decent wine.  As everything in New Zealand that has to do with food or alcohol is fairly expensive, we did not make any purchases – but we DID decide to give some of their small plates a try while we sampled a full glass of wine before returning to the town.  I can honestly say that the food we had at Cable Bay was some of the best we had in all of NZ – almost as good as the food back in Seattle!  Of course, being of a British lean, the food here tends to be a little on the bland side (sorry to our our English friends, but it’s true!).  But I digress!  Cable Bay Winery was a great spot and I highly recommend a stop if you are in the area.

A great sunset at Rocky Bay - note Auckland to the left!
Rocky Bay was a sweet little secluded spot with nary another cruising boat in site.  We basically had the place completely to ourselves for the few days we were there and we reveled in the time alone.  It’s amazing that we could be just an hour away from the biggest city in New Zealand and feel so far away from everything.  We did have a little excitement though when I discovered that our visa’s (as in immigration) were going to expire in just 4 days and we hadn’t sent in our renewal request yet!  Thank goodness there was a bus stop right next to the anchorage and I was able to take our paperwork into town to be overnighted to the immigration office.  Nothing like waiting until the last minute, eh?

Mussels galore!

The great mussel gatherers.
Our last stop on Waiheke was to re-join our friends on Mersoleil in Man O’War Bay on the very eastern side of the island.  We were blessed with more fantastic sunny days and so organized a trip out to the local mussel farm to harvest about a gazillion mussels for a big feast.  Joined by friends on Anniara, Mersoleil and Allegria we all took our dinghy’s to do a little harvesting.  Apparently the mussel farms are fine with you taking anything on the outer barrels, away from their main growth area.  Sweet!!!  In about 15 minutes we had enough mussels to feed about 15-20 people – which meant the 11 of us definitely would not go hungry.  Only down side was that we had to clean and de-beard them all, but they were well worth it.  It was a great night and we were thankful to spent the time with new and old friends before taking off for our next stop – Great Barrier Island!

All done cleaning - do we get to eat them yet???
Stay tuned for more on
cruising in New Zealand…..

Hiking on Motutapu Island - incredible views!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

New Zealand Road Kill

Okay, we'll start with one that's fairly easy...

This on is a little tougher...
Okay, I know, I know.....this is a totally sick topic to do a post on.  But I have to say that Brett and I have developed this weird habit of taking pictures of the road kills we come across during our forays out into the countryside while hiking.  And while I hate to admit it - some of the photos are kind of cool - even while they are totally gross.   Yes, yes, we'll seek medical help soon....

So take a look if you think you can handle it and lets see if you can figure out what they are!  All guesses are welcome.  And if you.....ummmm......don't like it, than simply skip this post! 

And finally the real challenge!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Living in Whangarei

View of Whangarei from the ridge above town.
When we arrived in Whangarei (pronounced Fongaray) way back in early November, we had no idea what to expect, but we were excited to find out.

Heading out of Marsdon Cove - note
how narrow the channel is!
While it might seam fairly small to those of us from the states, Whangarei is considered one of the largest cities in New Zealand, with an “urban” population of approximately 50,000.  Whangarei is the regional capitol for the Northland region, so it’s a fairly important spot in the overall scheme of things for New Zealand.

These little guys loved to greet us in the mornings....
After being in third world countries for the prior 6 months, it was incredible to be back in “civilization” with real grocery stores, cars and people everywhere.  We had heard mixed reviews from other cruisers, but I have to say that after spending many months living and working on the boat there, we came to truly love Whangarei and would highly recommend it as a home base for future cruisers.

The beginning of the Hatea River Walk
What’s to love?  First off, the area is absolutely surrounded by fabulous hikes, beautiful beaches and even some really cool caves.  Best of all – many of the hikes are located within walking distance from the main marina.  Feel like taking in a waterfall?  No problem!  Simply follow the Hatea River Walk trail and keep following the signs for Whangarei Falls.  Or maybe you want to go swimming?  Just “rent a dent” for about $35 and head out to one of the many local beaches.  Or if you really want to do something different, take a walk (right from town) up to Abbey Caves – a series of three caves that you can wonder through at your leisure.  We were amazed at the amount of walks or hikes you could do in the immediate area without needing a car to get there – very cool!


Hiking at Abbey Caves
How cute is he???

Cool cave pic - nice work Brett!
Stacey facing her fears and wading into
the water in Abby Caves.  Pretty good
considering I get claustrophobic, eh?

Fern trees are everywhere here!

An overview of Town Basin - note the huge grocery
right across the street - awesome!
Second thing to love is a very nice marina called Town Basin (also known as Whangarei Marina) that has a great staff of two (Brian and Sharron) who are ridiculously nice and will bend over backwards to help you with virtually anything you need – even going as far as putting together a packet to walk you through renewing your visa!  Town Basin is also home to a huge community of cruisers – so there are plenty of chances to socialize. We spent many evenings catching up with friends we hadn’t seen for ages as well as making lots of new friends that we hope to see again in our travels.

Bella Vita on the pilings next to Ganash - Fatty Goodlander's
boat.  If you don't know who that is, just Google it.
Third, and perhaps most important for us, was the fact that practically anything a boater could need, be it repair services or boat parts, were almost always available – WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE!  Yep – that’s right, the town was small enough that you could walk to virtually anything you needed – pretty important since we didn’t have a car.  While there we got both engines (main and genset) checked over, sails repaired and refrigeration fixed – all by highly trained people that really knew their trade.  Pretty impressive for such a small place.

Our friends Katie M II during low tide at Riverside - wow!
Yes, all in all we loved our time in Whangarei, way more than we thought we would when we first arrived.  Once we spent the time to wonder around and get to know the place it definitely felt like home – which is a pretty big deal after being on the move for so long.  If we had any complaints it would be the sand flies and the low tides, but that's can't blame Whangarei for that.  A big thanks from us to the town, the vast community of marine related companies and all the other friendly folks we met during our stay there.  You made it a truly great place to live!

Yep - the tides get pretty low in Whangarei...but
that's was well worth the muddy keel.