Join Skip James, Ryan Glover, Jack Mander and Captain Ben Millard on a sailing journey in search of waves and adventure off the East Coast of New Zealand's North Island.
CORONA JOURNEY NO.46 – WIND & SEA
Words and photos: Skip James / @skipjames.
Surfing and sailing seem like they should go hand in hand – they both harness the energy of the wind and ocean, a forward momentum without the aid of an engine or a playing field. A leisurely activity, a sport, art form, and for some simply a way of life; the latter being my preference. Surfing and sailing throughout the Pacific Islands has been a lifelong dream of mine, so what better place to do it than in my own backyard?
New Zealand has an estimated 600+ islands and one of the largest maritime zones in the world. But without a boat and an adventurous spirit, chances are you’ll keep to the five main islands, North, South, Stewart, Waiheke and Great Barrier Island. The rest of the scattered islands are the remains of the forgotten continent known as Zealandia, a submerged mass of continental crust that sank after breaking away from Australia some 65-80 million years ago. Ridges of continental rock rose above sea level to form hundreds of offshore islands, accessible to this day by boat only.
I had heard rumours from fishermen and salty sea dogs of waves breaking around several islands offshore, only a day’s sail from my home port. My buddy Ben, a keen sailor and surfer, had recently purchased a 1972 H28 yacht and was keen to explore the islands for waves. The yacht, Midas, was a Herreshoff 28 foot keeler, designed and built for coastal cruising. These yachts are so popular and seaworthy that they have seen more circumnavigations around the globe than any other yacht its size. The simplicity in the design allows for quick rigging and can even be sailed single-handedly. This set our minds at ease, knowing that in the event of losing our captain overboard, one of us may be able to haul the thing around for a swift recovery.
The crew consisted of UK transplant and first mate, Jack Mander. Big Sun Surf creator and deckhand, Ryan Glover. Marine biologist and captain, Ben Millard. And myself, photographer and stowaway. We planned a four-day trip circumnavigating three islands off the east coast of the North Island. Planning a sailing trip is completely different to planning a surf trip. First and foremost the wind, and from what direction it’s blowing will determine if we set sail. No swell is preferred, but a little swell roll from behind can help push the stern along nicely. With surfing, the opposite conditions are the most ideal – no wind to light offshore, followed by whatever swell the Pacific Ocean can muster. With sailing, your aim is to get from A to B relying solely on wind power, and if you throw a bit of swell and tide into the mix, it’s real easy to go backwards.
We had set a one-month window for the trip. Everyone was on call, and we patiently waited for the right weather pattern to roll through. At the end of May, the stars had aligned and we set sail for the islands. Halfway through our first crossing, we were accompanied by a pod of dolphins, our first good omen for the trip. They rode the swell with Midas, crossing over the bow and breaching either side, an amazing sight to see these guys interacting with the boat. They rode with us for 10 minutes before disappearing, and no attempts by Ryan to lure them back with his dolphin calls could lure them back.
Our first bit of rough weather came at our arrival at the northern tip of the first island. A combination of three-metre swell and 25-knot winds had us reef the main sail and change course, opting to sail round the southern end of the island instead. We could see the waves breaking on the north side, but the winds made it impossible for us the reach them for the time being. Sailing south to the other end of the island and looking for a sheltered spot to anchor up for the night, we happened to stumble upon our first surf of the trip. A tiny right-hander peeling down a sand and bolder bottom point. The swell and surf spots were meant to be on the other side of the island, but with the size and angle, it was somehow wrapping into this tiny bay. The boys couldn’t believe our luck in anchoring up at this perfect little wave, especially after the battering we copped earlier in the day.
This first surf set the tone for the rest of the trip; places we had mapped and plotted for waves were to be flat or non-existent. And spots which were rumoured to be left-handers on low tide turned out to be right-handers on high tide, much to Ryan and Jack’s delight. Maybe the swell direction was wrong for the spots we had mapped and the tides a little off when we had checked them, but each day we managed to find fun waves in places we least expected.
LEARN HOW TO SAIL
It’s not the hardest thing in the world, but it does take time and experience on the water to feel comfortable enough to set sail offshore. There are hundreds of sailing clubs all around NZ offering introductory courses for all ages and abilities. If that’s not your cup of tea, try the local mariner notice board. There are always keen weekend sailors looking for crew to help them sail, in return for time on the water.
Surfing and sailing forecasts never align. Sweet sailing winds to get you to where you want to go will often be the opposite of the clean offshore that is required for surfing. Leaving a few days beforehand, or sailing on the back end of a storm front can be one way of getting you there. But keep in mind the size of the swell travelling with that weather front – no one wants to be at sea with five-metre swells rolling under the boat.
The wind, swell, tides. Never underestimate the movements of the ocean and its environment. If the coastal VHF report is for 15-knots, be ready for 25-knots. If the wind direction is forecast S, at sea, it could be anything from SE-SW. Throw a small island in the mix, and you have wind swirls and patterns not forecasted by any report. Study the charts, do your homework, and be ready to change course at any moment.
Chances are you’ll come across a bit of seasickness from time to time. To keep it at bay, here are a few tips to get your sea legs back in action.
- Stay above deck at all times. Even when it’s rough and rolling, better to be out in the air than below in the cabin.
- Eyes on the horizon. Avoid looking down, stay off your phone.
- Keep hydrated. Water and tea (both peppermint and ginger tea are known to help settle the stomach).
- Pirates swear by rum, but I prefer a cold cerveza once the anchor has been dropped.
GET A BOAT
This may seem like the biggest hurdle, but it’s actually quite achievable here in New Zealand, in terms of availability. A small coastal cruiser or overnight sailor will set you back a couple of thousand dollars. Probably half of what you would pay for a jet ski or speedboat. If it’s still out of your budget, there’s always boat yards and mariners which are full of old vessels needing a bit of TLC running for a bargain price. Although, I would only recommend this option if you have the time and space for a passion project. As they say, the two happiest days of owning a boat are the day you buy it and the day you sell it!