Trespassing the Breaking Point, Twice!

After all the rummaging around in Northland’s rural laziness for months on end it had become high time for a change and I was in need to head South towards the urban madness of Auckland, New Zealand’s multi-ethnic and ever pretentious metropolis. Beatriz was due to fly in from her 11 months stint to Colombia on March 12. I thought that two weeks must be more than sufficient for sailing the just a little over one hundred nautical miles to the always busy Waitemata Harbor. My mind’s eye even optimistically conjured up the vision of a leisurely cruise, day hopping between the many bays and inlets of this sailor’s paradise of a coast.

The lands of Northland’s eastern coast look a bit like a fluffy rag pushed in front of a sturdy mop, which makes it ripple into a series of rounded folds and crevices. Ragged ranges of barely a couple hundred meters elevation come running down from the interior to the West and end up jotting out bravely into the pounding surf eastwards way past the lower terrain that has been gnawed away long ago by fierce erosion. Cape Karikari, the Cavalli Islands, Cape Wiwiki, the majestic Cape Brett with its notorious Hole in the Rock, Whangaruru, Tutukaka, then the imaginary Bream’s head and tail, Cape Rodney, Kawau Island and the Whangaparaoa Peninsula are all accented notes in a little symphony of geological ups and downs on an imaginary run down the East Coast of the upper North Island.

further-north

I’m saying imaginary here not without a hint of irony, as you shall see. When Aluna set out to touch upon the notes of the last section of this sonic tectonic masterpiece, the elements were definitely stacked against her, at the very least the aerial ones. With my notorious stubborn persistence it took me a while to understand that fact. First of all, the weather forecast wasn’t good. The subtropical ridge had planted itself firmly over central New Zealand and was directing a steady and quite sturdy flow of Southeasterlies up towards us, and Southeast is pretty much the course I had to lay for our journey down the coast. In spite of everything I was hoping to be able to dayhop from one of the many little bays on the way to the next.

Once the tide had allowed me to pick up my second anchor in the Opua Town Basin, which was set way too close to the beach to be retrieved at anything but high tide without getting stuck in the mud, it was mid-afternoon on the last Saturday of February. Just enough time was left in the day to sail out through the slight curvature of the Veronica Channel and make a small jump out into the Bay. Mangahawea Bay is tucked into the Northwest corner of Moturua Island, the name of which, if my tremendously rudimentary mastery of the Maori language happens to serve me right for once, must mean “Second Island”. This makes sense only if you think of yourself as coming out from the bottom of the bay, as I had just done, and count only the islands on your starboard side. You would pass Roberton Island and then stumble upon my little sheltered home for that night, which offered much needed protection from the winds howling out of the Southeast. Those winds I was about to get to know quite intimately. Another quite fancy-looking cat was already anchored in the little cove and two keelers, as the Kiwis call the boats that have either lost or not yet acquired their second hull, heaved back and forth further out. I maneuvered Aluna around my new neighbors to inspect the area and look for a suitable spot to drop the hook. The inhabitant of the supercat was gesturing wildly towards me without any clearly recognizable vocabulary, which was a bit of a distraction from my delicate task. I did however find a suitable patch with no significant troubles and as soon as the anchor bridle was attached and the motor turned off, the guy now verbally sent his message over to me at the top of his voice. They had a surplus of Snapper fillets cut for the night and wanted to invite me over for diner!

Well fed and well rested during the night I set out in the morning to face the elements, which, as was quite obvious, were not going to stand on my side of the equation. Hugging the wind tightly I was making progress slowly and it wasn’t before one in the afternoon when I finally emerged from the lee of the rugged ridge of Cape Brett. The wind had picked up considerably since the morning hours and I wearily looked up at the spar of Aluna’s big main sail, sensing that soon the threshold for having to take it down would be reached. We were a good bit to the North of the Cape by now, which meant that in order to clear it on the inward tack we had to fight our way about two miles past it to the East. By two o’clock I tacked, confident that I would be able to lay the course for the little and very protected cove of Whangamumu Harbor, just South of the Cape. The winds and seas continued to build and about half an hour into the new tack the virtue of prudency had me take the big sail down. I knew that the consequence of that maneuver were drastic. With the small mainsail up I needed another substantial increase in wind strength to be able to do any kind of efficient windward work. I knew I was going to lose my tack when I saw the outermost tip of the Cape slide slowly across the bows. By that time the bouncy sea had already eroded a good part of my motivation for pressing on. It seemed wise to lower my expectations and make for the entrance of Deep Water Cove, back in the lee on the North side of the Cape.

Just past the Cape on the way down.

Just past the Cape on the way down.

This beautiful cove would become our home for almost a week. Aluna hung on her anchor there protected from the brunt of the fierce winds, which raged on he other side of the mountain ranges around us, with only some violent gusts of turbulence racing down the hillsides towards us from all directions. Finally by Friday a low-pressure system had come traveling down from the tropics and cut into the high-pressure ridge sufficiently to veer our winds over to the Southwest. A bright and sunny morning saw Aluna ghosting in fickle winds past Cape Brett and start her journey South. After the morning hours had withered by with more light wind dancing, once the sun was past its zenith little whitecaps made their appearance, shyly at first, but soon transforming into horses of froth who for once shared the privileges of ridership. Towards five o’clock once again the bending of the spar above the forward mast announced the approaching point of no return. Since Aluna was hugging the wind tightly and barely hanging on to her required course I hesitated, considering too that usually towards the end of the afternoon the diurnal fluctuation of the winds were past their peak. The hope was that I would get away yet again with leaving the big sail up there in spite of my instincts telling me otherwise. That hope, alas, was without any substance whatsoever in the real world and a vicious cracking noise made me aware that I had just flunked today’s exam in practical seamanship. The top forward corner of the once proud mainsail hung sagging sadly from the top of the mast and started to flutter violently in the wind.

A slur of swear words later the tangled mess was wrestled down onto the deck and the trusty mainsail number two was doing the best it could in its place up the mast. But it was not enough. It was more than obvious that with the present winds our course would take us out to the many offshore islands instead of down along the coast. After having just messed up my reputation as an able mariner a more prudent decision was in order and I decided to turn Aluna to starboard. Whangaruru Harbor as I had seen on the chart was just over five miles away to the West. Against the short seas and stiff wind I knew Aluna could make way at about three knots with her trusty little outboard roaring away under full throttle, which meant there was just barely enough time to arrive there before dark. The anchor did drop with the last wink of daylight and it was definitely nice to spend the night comfortably on the bunk instead of bobbing up and down angry seas and listening to hissing winds while contemplating what could go wrong next.

Up early the next morning it was time to put the bamboos from Fiji to work. I knew that time was precious; Southeasterlies loomed again predominantly in the forecast for the upcoming week. So I planned to work like a madman for two days. I hadn’t had a close look at those bamboos since before leaving Savusavu when I had tied them down underneath where the sails are stowed on Aluna’s outboard sides. I had hastily slapped on some paint back then to make sure the picky bio-security officers of New Zealand’s border control would understand that these poles were part of the boat and not some suspicious vegetable materials trying to sneak some nasty alien organisms into the pristine local environment ready to upset the delicate balance f the native flora and fauna. Some of that paint had peeled away and there were some patches of the typical black mold bamboo acquires invariably when exposed to the marine environment. I lifted up the 30’ long culm for the main spar and was surprised how feather light it was. This was great news to me since it meant that the hoisting of the bundled sail would be bit less strenuous from now on. But then I wondered if maybe I was seeing too much of a good thing in front of me. How would those fickle poles hold up to the stresses right there were the halyard attaches, the place I had just seen breaking on my old and tired spars? There was not much I could do for the time being to remedy those worries. Glassing a bamboo spar is a time-consuming and very messy affair and I had neither the time nor the proper workspace available for doing such a task. All I could do was assemble the spar by lashing the doubler culm to the top two thirds of the main one, attach the fittings for the brailing line blocks, fit the loops where the halyard will shackle to, make the flexible connection to the boom at the foot of the sail and then spiral lash the bordered tarp sail in place between the spar and the boom. While this can all be said quickly in one simple sentence, the actual process took a good day and a half.

Sunday at three in the afternoon the new sail flew hoisted up on the mast and looked very, very good. I thought it would be wise to spend a quick hour cleaning Aluna’s underwater hull sides before heading out. That hour would be recouped very quickly on the eighty some mile journey ahead. Then the anchor came up and off we went sailing towards the jagged row of rocks that guard Whangaruru’s harbor entrance. A gentle breeze seemed to come nicely from the North. I saw by the texture of the water surface past the rocks that the winds out there would be a bit stiffer, but nothing like the churned up white froth riding the waves when the mishap happened two days earlier. The stiff spar gave the sail a great shape and for a moment I could feel it’s powerful pull. Unfortunately the magic was not supposed to last very long. Just barely into the rippled water the spar cracked in precisely the same way its predecessor had, without the slightest sign of remorse. Once again a tangled mess of tarp and crooked poles was soon laying in deck and I returned to the harbor for the night.

That was it! The gods, or whoever happens to be in charge nowadays, didn’t want Aluna to go to the big city! The following day a stiff Southwesterly brought Aluna back up to Cape Brett under her small main sail, and another day later she had made it back to Opua, where now she must wait lonely for our return from a road trip South to Auckland. My always helpful friend Peter offered his impressive stand of bamboo for the harvest of two replacement poles for the spars. Those perfectly straight culms are now starting their painfully slow drying process in the shade below his house on the hill, while we are exploring the urban valleys of concrete, scanning them for those rare human activities worth pursuing with integrated passion.

Cape Brett on the way back up.

Cape Brett on the way back up.

Once coming full circle back in the relaxed rural setting of the Bay of Islands we’ll have to engage in some serious engineer’s pondering to find a way to reinforce that critical spot where the amazing power of this ancient apparatus to harvest the winds for locomotion seems to concentrate, pushing the structural integrity of the building material persistently beyond its breaking point.

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