One of the advantages of a clockwise circumnavigation of New Zealand is that, for the most part, the trip down the east coast of both islands can be completed with day-sails. This enabled us to keep to schedule heading south, making use of sometimes very narrow weather windows.

Timaru, the next stop after Akaroa, is an industrial port not really set up for yachts, but with the help of a keen local yachtie, we slotted between the half-dozen local yachts stern-tied to the seawall. At each port we would ask around and get the lay of the land and hopefully a contact for the next port.

Onwards to Oamaru, where the entrance to the harbour was for many years virtually closed off by shifting sands. We had been told it had been recently dredged and that by staying close to the inner western seawall there would be plenty of depth. In fact there was over four metres of water at half-tide.

Where Napier is famous for its Art Deco, Oamaru is renowned for its Victorian architecture.

The 1930s depression hit Oamaru hard and the recovery seen elsewhere never really happened until quite recently. This meant no money and no reason to demolish and replace the dated Victorian buildings that dominate the port area. It was a saving grace, resulting in a treasure of Victorian architecture, now well-restored and a city attraction. Some of the shop keepers, museum curators and publicans dress in Victorian clothing in keeping with the era. We heard tell of a school teacher who religiously dressed in her Victorian finery every day for school.

Dave and Sue Mackay enjoy a drink and some fresh air on New Year’s Eve in Stewart Island.

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Walking through town you are occasionally hit by a strong odour which we mistakenly took for dead rats. In fact it comes from the blue penguins which like to nest under the buildings in town. A large old wharf jutting out into the middle of the harbour has been closed to the public and is home to Otago shags and spotted shags, each claiming their own end of the wharf.

Such is the quaintness of Oamaru!

On to Dunedin in a building nor-easterly. With waves standing up high on the shallow banks a mile outside the harbour, we surfed our way in to behind the lee of Taiaroa Head. Our friends, the Armstrong family, had managed to secure us a berth right in the town basin. Each day we were entertained by the recreational fishermen whiling away their days, chatting and joking and not seeming to catch much. Until Christmas day, when one guy’s rod doubled over with a 16-pound salmon which he skilfully landed, much to the joy of everyone there.

The leg from Dunedin to Stewart Island south along the Catlins coast and into the exposed Foveaux Strait had to be planned carefully since the weather windows are usually quite short. Robyn Armstrong had told us that the best plan is to wait for a low pressure system to pass under the South Island and the strong, usually gale-force, sou’west winds to abate. Then, whatever time of day it might be, head out and aim to be into Paterson Inlet on Stewart Island within 24 hours.

Ocean side of The Neck, Paterson Inlet.

Martin Doyle joined me for this leg, Sue opting to go overland with Martin’s wife Liz and fly across to Oban. We were lucky to get a longer, more sedate weather window than the norm and set sail, rounding Taiaroa Head at dusk. By dawn we were off Long Point in the Catlins where we stopped for an hour and caught our first blue cod of the trip, a delicacy we rate up there with snapper, our prime fish of the north.

Long Point is a renowned surf spot and both our sons have surfed there at different times. Open to Southern Ocean swells, it throws up long, hollow right-handers and is a formidable spot, not for the faint-hearted.

Approaching Foveaux Strait later in the day with clear skies and a moderate easterly breeze, we decided to call at Ruapuke Island, halfway across to Stewart Island. The guide book advises to avoid the area due to the strong currents flowing through the strait. However, it was a nice day and we were able to safely navigate around the south side of the island (even with the wind against tide) and spend some time sheltered in the calm waters before setting off on the final stretch to Halfmoon Bay.

Southern rata in bloom, Paterson Inlet.

We had started seeing albatrosses between Gisborne and Napier and they became more and more common as we headed south. At Ruapuke Island where we filleted the cod and threw the heads and frames over the side, we had royal, white-capped, Buller’s and Salvin’s albatrosses in the water, just a metre or two from the boat, ready to pounce on whatever came their way with a throaty squawk to ward off rivals.

Just like the dolphins, albatross encounters became a feature of the trip and we were always quick to get out the camera so that we could identify the species. They really are the most amazing birds and it takes a while to get used to how big they are! What’s particularly striking is how chiselled their features are, especially around the head and eyes, the white-caps especially looking tantalisingly beautiful but almost menacing at the same time.

Weeks later, sailing up the west coast of the South Island somewhere far off Westport in late afternoon with 18 to 20 knots from the west and a big four-metre swell, we were revelling in the conditions. Albatrosses had come and gone through the day but as the sun got lower we were joined by one, then two, and eventually five Gibson’s wandering albatross. Two of them were juveniles with brown plumage and white faces.

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At first they would come in and soar across our bow, circle around and pass our stern before heading off for a few minutes. Then as the full contingent joined us, they stayed closer and wove a steady pattern, staying in sight as they soared dynamically along the swells.

A not-sofriendly sea lion. Marine mammals were common everywhere on Stewart Island.

There did not appear to be any practical reason why they wanted to join us: they did not seem to be gaining any lift off our sails and we weren’t throwing them any food. Maybe they simply wanted to be with us, enjoying the moment just as we were, while the sun set and Flying Cloud glided along towards the horizon. They were still with us when it got dark but in the morning they were gone.

Stewart Island is paradise! Our first day there we cruised around Paterson Inlet close to shore, taking in the scenery, which is for the most part thick, virgin native bush right down to the water’s edge, untouched by loggers targeting the straight rimu and totara, or by farmers intent on breaking-in land to graze sheep. As we sailed and explored with Martin and Liz on New Year’s Eve, there were only one or two other yachts to be seen on this expansive harbour at the backdoor to Oban, the only settlement on the island.

Paterson Inlet has a number of coves and tight, secure anchorages, all fun to explore with tracks that head off in different directions. Our favourite was Glory Cove where the holding is excellent and we could swing at anchor with plenty of sea room. I sat through a westerly gale there by myself for several days quite happily with anchor alarms set and transits not moving. A short walk from there across a narrow isthmus took us to a beautiful, white sandy beach with surf rolling in and sea lions sunning themselves above the high tide mark.

There are three all-weather harbours further south down the east coast of Stewart Island: Port Adventure, Lords River and Port Pegasus. Heading down that way, the feeling of being alone increases and the need to be totally self-reliant takes on greater importance – perhaps even more so than in Fiordland. The state of heightened awareness somehow gives you an edge that better prepares you to totally absorb the stunning beauty of this untouched corner of the world.

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Blue water and white sand: Sue walks along the beach at Port Adventure, Stewart Island.

Within Port Adventure we anchored securely in the picturesque cove of Abraham’s Bosom and walked along the deserted beach just a few metres through the bush to the east on the open side. With clear water, crystalline white sand and bright sunshine it felt tropical. A sea lion patrolling the beach had left tracks in the sand. We took a long dinghy trip up the Heron River close to the anchorage where thick, lush bush formed a dense canopy above and rata trees were in a rich bloom of red.

Port Pegasus, at the southern-most end of Stewart Island, is a fully enclosed harbour containing numerous islets and coves that provide a range of exquisite anchorages. Together with the stunning backdrop of the surrounding granite peaks of Mog, Maygog and Bald Cone, it is the jewel in the crown. We felt privileged to be the only yacht in such a remote place with all the beauty and grandeur that nature could possibly muster. (Later we happened upon two other yachts, both from Oamaru, hidden away in snug anchorages as we explored the various arms and reaches of the harbour.)

Port Pegasus is steeped in history. On our second day we visited the remains of a tin mining settlement at the top end of the North Arm. Later in the day we hiked an hour up the Tin Mine trail towards the tops where back in the 1880s the pioneers had extracted ore.

Sea lions are common on Stewart Island and especially so in Port Pegasus. There tend to be a lot of young lone males cruising around in the shallows and up the streams. They never bothered us but were interested enough to come by, check us out, and continue on looking for a fish to eat.

Snug at anchor, Disappointment Cove, Port Pegasus.

A commercial kina (sea urchin) diver in Oban told me that he had never been threatened by a sea lion in his dozens of dives in the area. He did recount the story of how he had felt a tugging on his arm one day while diving and was shocked to turn and see the size of the head and the body behind it. An inquisitive, fully mature bull was gently sucking on his arm. I have heard other stories of sea lions exhibiting quite threatening behaviour in the water, but not of anyone being attacked.

This far south the days are long and in the late afternoon with clear skies and the bush and mountains taking on a violet hue, we navigated our way into the picturesque southernmost anchorage, Disappointment Cove. The guidebook refers to it as an all-weather anchorage and a go-to spot to seek refuge from gales and storms. Tight and fully enclosed, we felt secure there with our two stern lines out and the anchor set firmly in the sandy bottom.

Unfortunately, a deep low was developing in the southern Tasman and we would be forced to sit tight for up to a week. The models showed that this south-western corner of Stewart Island would see storm-force winds while back up to the north-east, Paterson Inlet would only see gales. While Disappointment Cove anchorage would have been a fine anchorage to ride it out, we opted to head back before the wind kicked in, cutting short our stay in beautiful Port Pegasus. BNZ

ANCHORING

In most of the anchorages in Fiordland and many in Stewart Island it’s necessary to tie stern to shore. There are not many anchorages in Fiordland where you can swing at anchor and the most protected places tend to be corners and coves where you can tie into an enclosed space.

We bought two 100m floating lines of 16mm polypropylene double-braid for this purpose and they worked a treat. The lines laid into PVC bags tied into the aft corners of the cockpit.

The drill was to spend a bit of time planning the anchoring manoeuvre… scope the depths, plan where to drop the anchor (usually at least 50m offshore), identify trees or other attachments ashore to tie to, figure out the wind and get the dinghy ready. We would drop the anchor and reverse ashore letting out excess chain, then I would jump in the dinghy with the end of the floating line and head for the selected tree. The line would feed out of the bag and would float on the surface and never sink under the boat or down to the bottom where it might get caught around something.

It paid to tie the dinghy painter around my waist so that I did not have to think about the dinghy floating away as I climbed ashore and tied the shore line around the tree. A long loop in the bowline made it easier to untie it later to facilitate a fast and easy getaway.

We usually used both lines and adjusted the tensions on the two lines and anchor to set the boat in the best position, the two lines leading to the primary sheet winches. If there is a choice, it’s better to have the stern tied to the windward shore, as it’s less likely for the stern lines to break than it is for the anchor to drag.

Knowing where to anchor in the forecast conditions is key to enjoying Stewart Island and Fiordland. The Mana Island Cruising Club’s Stewart Island Cruising Guide and A Boatie’s Guide to Fiordland are ‘must haves’ for any cruise through the region. Add to that Beneath the Reflections, published by DOC about Fiordland, and you have most anchoring options detailed. BUT they are not 100% and the more you can talk to fishermen, charter operators and other yachties who have been there before, the more prepared you will be.

Some anchorages that seem like they will be totally secure can become a trap in the wrong conditions. There is no way you would know this unless you had experienced being there on the wrong day. But the fisherman know them all intimately. They have pulled yachts off the rocks in what were thought to be safe anchorages. You can be in a cove, protected from the open water of the fiord on all sides, seemingly snug and secure, but what you don’t know is that in this spot, a nor-west wind, for example, might funnel down a valley a certain way at strengths equal to or greater than the gale that’s blowing out in the Tasman Sea.

You must have your wits about you and there can be an element of stress, but the rewards of coming to one of the remotest cruising grounds in the world outweigh the difficulties by far.