The lonely isles

Sep 22, 2011

A windy visit to New Zealand’s Chatham Islands

Our decision to visit the Chatham Islands was not made until the very last minute. Having taken advantage of a second summer season cruising in New Zealand, we were finishing up a circumnavigation of the country. At the time we were enjoying the city life of Dunedin on the South Island after two and half months spent in the wild isolation of Fiordland and Stewart Island. Our time was running short for returning to New Zealand’s North Island where we wanted to complete a haul-out and do annual maintenance before leaving at the end of May for Fiji and the western Pacific.

As we sat snug in the little Otago Yacht Club for two weeks, relaxing and watching weather systems pass by, we realized that if the predominant southwesterlies continued, we could make the trip to the Chathams with only 200 extra miles sailed compared to sailing directly to Opua. The travel guide Lonely Planet describes the Chathams as “...an isolated, mysterious and wild group of islands, very much off the beaten track.” The decision was made. We’ve gone out of our way in the past to visit isolated islands, including Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic and Pitcairn in the South Pacific. We were never disappointed with the genuinely warm welcome and hospitality we received and the unique perspective we gained from the islands’ inhabitants about isolated island life.

The Chatham Islands are a group of 10 islands located about 500 nm east of New Zealand’s South Island city of Christchurch, recently the site of several major earthquakes. Our northeast route from Dunedin and the beautiful Otago Peninsula was estimated at 600 nm and would keep us in the Roaring Forties and take us across the 180-degree meridian, but not the dateline. The Chathams are almost equidistant between the equator and South Pole and sit close enough to the International Date Line that they tout themselves as being the first folks in the world to welcome each new day, new year, new millennium. They even have their own time zone — 45 minutes ahead of the rest of New Zealand.

Named after the British survey ship HMS Chatham, the first European vessel to locate the island in 1791, Chatham Island is by far the largest island and one of two populated islands in the group, the other being Pitt Island. We were headed to the largest town of Waitangi on Chatham. We made it a point to do research on the Chathams before leaving and made contact with several people on the island in advance of our arrival asking if we could bring anything with us that was needed. The Chathams have regular air service from New Zealand, so the answer was no, but they were definitely aware we were coming. Since there are no cruising guides and little information available about sailing to the Chathams, having a contact ashore was definitely to our advantage.

A raw beginning
We set out on a cold, raw and overcast day. The wind was on again/off again and then settled in at 20-plus knots from the southeast giving us a good broad reach towards the Chatham Islands. The birds were plentiful as we lost sight of the Otago Peninsula. Great royal albatross soaring oh so gracefully overhead were joined by mollymawks, gulls, terns, shearwaters and Cape petrel. A ridge of pale blue clung close to the horizon and sometimes peeked through a gray sky which hung like a heavy mantle above us.

The five day, 600-nm trip was characterized by days of dazzling sunshine punctuated with brief showers and cold, rainy nights. Despite the intermittent warmth provided by the engine heater when we occasionally motored, we were layered up to the Nth degree and were still sometimes cold. Continual showers rendered dozens of rainbows, but left us damp. Hundreds of birds graced us each morning, especially albatross. The tips of their great wings come centimeters from touching the water as they glide over the waves. They dip low in the troughs of the huge southwest swells and are lost momentarily until the waves crest, then fall and the birds suddenly reappear. Compared to their graceful winging, the flitting, fluttering, dipping and weaving of the Storm petrels is amusing and tiring to watch.

A delay in arrival due to a faulty oil cooler had us limping into Waitangi Bay with 25-knot winds on the nose well after dark. As we rounded Hanson Point and passed the well-lit wharf, we were like horses close to the barn, anxious to settle in and call it a day. Chatham Island at last.

The wind howled in the rigging incessantly throughout the night. Our first view of the Chathams from our rocking boat the next morning was somewhat obscured in 30-knot winds and heavy rain. We could see the small settlement of Waitangi with moored fishing boats in front of the wharf to our west. Red-earthed cliffs provided a sharply contrasted background to the weathered port buildings. Grassy dunes lined the east end of the horseshoe bay with the little town protected behind point. Gale warnings were in effect. The forecast called for NE 30 knots all day with a switch to SW 40 during the night and continuing for the three-day forecast period. To add to the excitement, Cyclone Bune was expected to dip south to pay the Chathams a visit as well!

The windy isles
We understood why they call them “the windy Chathams”... it’s because it’s really, really windy! Throughout the next day and night, the wind progressed from snarling in the high 20s to shrieking in the mid-30s to wailing in the low 40s. Regular checks of the anchor and snubber showed Nine of Cups was holding in place. The rain was as heavy as we’d ever encountered and pounded the deck in sheets. A SW wind change occurred late morning and the swell subsided a bit, though the wind, now at 45 to 50 knots, kept us alert. We laid out more scope and Nine of Cups, as usual, seemed to be weathering the blow better than her complaining crew. It was an odd day with alternating bright sun and blue skies changing in a flash to heavy rains totally obscuring the shoreline. We had still had no opportunity to go to shore. Cyclone Bune continued her approach, but her winds were weakening.

At last...on our third day, it dawned sunny, bright and moderately calm. Cyclone Bune had dissipated. We figured we had passed the rite of initiation in the Chathams: If you don’t blow away in three days, you can go ashore. We met John Day almost immediately, a crayfish trap maker with a shop on the wharf. John was a fine first introduction to Chatham Islanders. Our oil cooler needed a new fitting and John handed us the keys to his truck along with directions to the Waitangi Garage. We found a used fitting at the garage after sorting through bin after bin of possibilities.

There’s not much in Waitangi — a bank which also serves as the post office; a small cafe; the Waitangi Store which sells everything from petrol at the pump and diesel engine oil to chicken mash and flower seeds. There’s a fish factory for processing blue cod and crayfish, a few miscellaneous odd shops and Hotel Chatham which seemed to be the meeting place for everyone in town. A local invited us for a short tour to Owenga, the easternmost point on the island. Chatham is primarily grassy, rolling hills, which are great for pasturing sheep and cattle, the main industry on the island. A huge lagoon, plus some smaller lakes take up a major part of the northwest portion of the island.

Fossilized shark’s teeth
After another high wind, stay-on-the-boat day, a grand day dawned and we set out on foot for the Te Whanga Lagoon, home to hundreds of black swans and a repository for 30-million-year-old fossilized shark’s teeth. As we left the water’s edge and headed inland, native Red Admiral butterflies flitted about, as we passed by pasture after pasture of grazing sheep and livestock. The trip was lengthened by our discovery of ripe blackberries en route.

We readily accepted a ride and an invitation from Pat Smith who owned a large farm that bordered the lagoon. He took us for a bush walk along the lagoon and pointed out colorful Chatham Island daisies and native flora. Countless black swans swam peacefully in the lagoon and shark’s teeth could be found buried in the sand near the water’s edge.

During our visits ashore, we were continually regaled with “You haven’t seen the Chatham Islands, until you’ve seen Pitt.” Pitt Island, the second largest of the Chatham group, is only about 40 nm from Waitangi and it seemed only reasonable that we add it to the itinerary.

With northerly winds forecast and a big southwest swell still rolling, we opted to anchor in sheltered Port Hutt, 10 miles across the bay from Waitangi. The rusting remains of Thomas Currell, an old World War II minesweeper later turned into a fish freezer, lay close to the shore. The bay was weedy and thick with kelp, but the anchor dug in immediately and we were set. There is not much at Port Hutt: a few houses and a small seafood/fish processing factory, but it put us in a good position to leave early morning for Pitt Island.

Lonely Pitt Island
We raised anchor at dawn and headed towards Pitt. Crazy winds ranged from five knots to nearly 50 knots. Some of this variability attributable to cape effect as we went around The Horns and Cape L’eveque at the southwest corner of Chatham. We had hoped to stop at Flower Pot, the only landing place/settlement on Pitt, but the strong northerlies and open road stead anchorage prevented this. Instead, the 43-mile trip ended in a very rolly anchorage in Waikare Bay on the west side of Pitt Island which sufficed for the night with dusk fast approaching.

While Pitt Island itself is known for its sheep and wool production, the sea area around Pitt is known for its rock formations that jut out of the sea several hundred feet in interesting shapes. Explorers and locals have given them interesting names like the Castle, the Pyramid and Sail Rock. There are also several important nature reserves and breeding sites for birds, but all are off-limits to visitors.

With the forecast calling for NE 30, switching to NW 35, switching to SW 45...all between late afternoon and the following early morning, we needed to move. Checking our charts and relying on some previous info gleaned from a local lobsterman, we headed around the Murumurus at the southern tip of Pitt and up the east coast to Canister Cove.

Heading downwind was exhilarating — we cruised at more than seven knots with just the staysail and a bare pole. We passed by the Castle, the Fort and Round Rock. We could see Sail Rock and the Pyramid in the distance. Turning the corner at the bottom of the island and heading to the shelter of Canister Cove just a few miles up the coast was another story. We now had wind and waves on the nose and even with the engine working hard, we made four knots with difficulty, threading our way through the maze of rocks and reefs along the way.

By the time we arrived at Canister Cove, the wind was NE 40 with gusts greater than 50. Pelting rain stung our faces as we tried to anchor. With SW 45 knot winds blowing on the other side of the headlands, we were content to stay in Canister Cove although an easterly swell clobbered us with a constant roll that had us feeling “off” all day. We could see large waves and whitecaps in the passage just outside the cove and the wind howled through. The weather forecast not only confirmed continued high winds, but indicated 35-plus foot waves in open waters. The swell had somewhat calmed in Canister Cove and we opted to stay another night. When the swell returned in the late evening, we hunkered down, prepared to spend a long, long night. We thought it would never end. No sleep possible, we bounced and rocked gunwale to gunwale. Violent squalls came and went with shrieking winds, heavy rain and hail pummeling the deck. The cold, dark hours stretched mercilessly: just six hours till daylight, just five and a half hours, just five hours. On and on until at last, it was light enough to move.

Raising the anchor was beyond exhilarating. The wind screeched. The rain came down in heavy, soaking sheets. Removing the snubber was impossible and David finally resorted to cutting it with his knife. It was cold and raw and now the anchor would not budge. It was wedged on a rock below. We seemed perilously close to rocks and a ledge to starboard with huge rollers and surge propelling us forward. After more than an hour of wrestling and maneuvering, we managed to free ourselves. We briefly considered returning to Waitangi, but it was now 85 miles away and against the wind and waves.

A better anchorage
With a sigh of relief and resignation, we headed north to what seemed a better-protected anchorage. Though only a few miles away as the crow flies, the new anchorage was closer to 12 miles once we skirted around several hard spots. As we passed the ragged teeth of Passage Rock, barely protruding out of the sea, but quite obvious in these winds and waves, we could imagine ships of old unaware of the rocks’ presence until caught up and wrecked upon them. Several other reefs and rocks needed our careful attention as we plodded along. Luckily, the crashing waves signaled their location and confirmed the charts. We made it into the Tupangi anchorage, nicely protected, but still the SE swell persisted. The forecast now called for 40- to 47-knot SW winds and 40- to 50-foot waves along our projected route northwest. There was nothing to do but tough it out here and wait for the seas and winds to ease.

“Storm warnings in effect for the Chatham Islands. Forecast: SW 40 knots this morning, rising to SW 50 knots this afternoon, then easing to SW 40 knots this evening with heavy rain and hail.” That was our morning greeting, compliments of the NZ Maritime/Chatham Fishermen’s Radio. Needless to say, we stayed put yet another day and another and another.

Finally, after four long windy days, the day dawned sunny, bright and calm. There would be no landing at Pitt Island, no stop at Flower Pot. It was time to get out of Dodge. We set about hauling anchor to leave Pitt Island and head back to New Zealand. After the last few days of big blows, David once more had to cut the snubber. The chart was marked “wd” describing the anchorage seabed weeds and it was quite accurate. It took us nearly an hour to haul anchor because removing kelp and weeds was very time-consuming. We resurrected our trusty machete from Patagonia which has a serrated edge on one side and blade on the other and used it to saw and hack our way through the kelp which had wound itself tautly around the anchor chain like the tentacles of some huge sea monster.

We headed out of the bay with the best of send-offs...tens of dolphins joined us, delighting in our bow wake. They jumped and twirled in mid-air, dove under the boat and seemed to be having a particularly enjoyable time. We certainly enjoyed the show and took it as a good luck sign for this part of the passage. The dolphins weren’t alone in bidding us farewell, a host of mollymawks, royal albatross and a couple of shy, peeking blue penguins were also on hand for the occasion.

Our two-week visit in the Chathams netted us four days ashore and eight days of gale force winds. We would have loved to have spent more time ashore, more time with the Chatham Islanders and definitely any time at all on Pitt Island, but it was not to be. The adventure was in the getting there and being there...experiencing the wildness of a place most people will never see.


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Marcie Connelly-Lynn and her husband, David, have lived aboard Nine of Cups, a 1986 45-foot Liberty cutter since 2000 and have sailed more than 65,000 nautical miles. Nine of Cups is a tarot card signifying “dreams come true.” You can check out their website at www.nineofcups.com.

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