Sailing around Banks Peninsula

Aug 28, 2017 Cruising

Despite its many secluded anchorages, Banks Peninsula is an underrated boating destination. You can often be sailing or anchored in complete solitude, forgetting that one of New Zealand’s largest cities is just over the hill, writes Vicki Moore.

As you sail down the east coast of the South Island, it’s easy to understand why on February 17, 1770 Captain Cook mistook Banks Peninsula for an island. The ancient, extinct volcanic peaks appear to float on the hazy, flat horizon.

Cook described the land as “of a circular figure … of a very broken uneven surface and having more the appearance of barrenness than fertility.” He named it Banks Island after the Endeavour’s botanist, Joseph Banks.

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Cook didn’t stop to explore the extensive sheltered harbours and bays of what we now call Banks Peninsula, instead steering away and continuing south. In doing so he missed experiencing some
fantastic cruising grounds that many Cantabrians and visitors enjoy today.

Originally of course, Banks Peninsula was an island. Two volcanoes thrust out of the ocean some
15 million years ago, spewing rock and ash over what is now the patchwork quilt of the Canterbury Plains. About six million years ago the volcanoes became extinct and erosion from the sea has carved a boating playground with a multitude of bays and inlets punctuated by dramatic rocky headlands.

Lyttelton Harbour is tucked away out of sight from the city of Christchurch. Secluded by the Port Hills this busy commercial port town is soon to be the site of a brand new marina, which is currently under construction and due for completion early next year.

The lack of berthing facilities has somewhat stifled the growth of the yachting community since a wild storm sent 32 boats to their watery graves back in 2010. The then-new marina in Magazine Bay was
completely destroyed when hurricane-force winds and high seas smashed the floating breakwater pontoons to smithereens.

But despite the woeful lack of amenities, the boating community still flourishes. Lyttelton Harbour is home to two busy yacht clubs. Naval Point Club in Lyttelton is bustling with wakas, dinghies, trailer yachts, power boats, swimmers, stand up paddleboarders, windsurfers and keelers.

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Visiting sailors can expect a warm welcome from its cruising group ‘The Little Ship Club of Canterbury’
which runs regular events, both on and off the water, with guest speakers encouraged to tell the story of
their sailing adventures.

Corsair Bay is a lovely anchorage for visiting sailors. Sheltered from the prevailing easterly breeze, it is a short dinghy ride to Naval Point where you can use showers, a washing machine, visit the friendly bar and access the club’s WiFi.

From there it’s a 15-minute walk in to Lyttelton town, where trendy cafes, bars and award-winning restaurants await. A fully-stocked supermarket or the Farmers’ market on Saturday mornings is an ideal place to get provisions, or a regular bus will whisk you through the tunnel in to Christchurch City.

If a southerly is forecast, head to Diamond Harbour. Tucked under the hills, and serviced by a regular
commuter ferry to Lyttelton, this is a lovely sheltered spot. Walk up the hill to one of the local cafés and along to Charteris Bay Yacht club, a popular spot for dinghy sailors over weekends.

Right in the centre of the harbour is Quail Island, where polar explorers Scott and Shackleton quarantined and trained their ponies and sled dogs before heading down to the Antarctic.

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The island is being painstakingly restored with native bush and is home to many native birds. On the western side of the island is a ship graveyard containing the historic skeletons of 13 vessels.

Ripapa Island is another historic site which is sadly closed now due to earthquake damage. Ripapa was once the site of a fortified Maori pa. In the late 1800s it was used as a quarantine station for new immigrants and then as a prison, before being turned in to a walled fort with two large disappearing guns. We hope the island will open again to visitors once the historic buildings are made safe.

As you sail back out the harbour you will likely be joined by pods of friendly Hectors dolphins. Growing to a maximum 1.5m, these dolphins are only found in New Zealand waters and are the smallest in the world. Keep an eye out for seals, penguins and the occasional whale.

If you enjoy kai moana, drop your line over the side and you might catch blue cod, red cod, kahawai and possibly a kingfish or groper. Free-dive for juicy green-lip mussels, paua and crayfish. Be sure to check the current fishing regulations to ensure you take only legally-sized fish.

From Lyttelton it is approximately 40 nautical miles to the next major township – Akaroa. Easily achievable in a day, but if you have more time, there are many lovely bays to stop and explore along the way.

Port Levy is the first such bay you will get to. The rolling swell of the Pacific Ocean gradually eases and then disappears completely as you sail deep in to the bay and around to the sheltered anchorage on the eastern side.

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Take your dinghy and explore the little island, or go ashore to visit the beautiful marae and walk up the hill to the sculptures overlooking the water. We once spent an entire long weekend in this stunning place – the only boat in the bay the whole time.

The next bay along from Port Levy is also worth a visit. Unprotected from the swell, it’s a tricky anchorage, but if you get out and explore in your dinghy you will find a huge hidden sea cave with two entrances and if the tide is right blow holes send water spouts shooting up from the rocky shoreline.

A next favourite stop is Pigeon Bay, home to Pigeon Bay Boating Club, a self-service camping ground and a handful of holiday houses. The best anchorage is in Holmes Bay on the western side, where you will be woken by the sounds of cows mooing in the morning.

It is well worth waiting until the weekend to visit Pigeon Bay where you will get a warm welcome from the club members, and invited to enjoy one of their famous BBQs or pot-luck dinners.

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Continuing around the peninsula you will next come to Little Akaloa, Okains and Le Bons Bay. These are all open to the ocean swells but on calm days you can drop the anchor and head ashore to golden sandy beaches to explore.

Nor-West Bay is a cosy spot at the entranceto Okains Bay and just big enough for one yacht to anchor and swing. The Okains Bay Museum is full of precious Maori artefacts and is worth a visit if you have time.

As your voyage continues south and then south-west, you will pass Pompeys Pillar – a majestic tower of rock jutting out from the ocean, Hickory Bay (a popular spot for surfers) and many smaller bays and inlets which are all great places to explore and stay if you have suitable weather conditions.

Pick up a copy of the Banks Peninsula Cruising Guide – available to purchase from Naval Point
Club. This amazing resource provides a wealth of information about every possible nook and cranny anchorage there is around the peninsula.

Just before you reach the entrance to Akaroa Harbour you will pass Flea Bay Pohatu Marine Reserve. A special home to a colony of korora white-flippered penguins and the occasional yellow-eyed penguin as well.

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Seals, dolphins, whales and albatross can also often be seen in this reserve. Take care not to disturb or take any of the wildlife and shells, rocks and driftwood during your visit.

A break in the steep, sheer cliffs announces the entrance to Akaroa Harbour. A historical home to
Ngai Tahu people, and as you sail up the harbour you will pass Onuku Marae on the eastern side. The first European visitors to Akaroa were from a British sealing ship in the early 1800s, bringing diseases with them which decimated the local Maori population. In August 1840 a French whaler ‘purchased’ a block of land to set up a French Colony.

The Treaty of Waitangi had already been signed giving the country British Sovereignty. The French settlers accepted this jurisdiction and Akaroa became the first township in the South Island.

Today it is a popular tourist spot and proudly retains its French heritage. French Bay is a great anchorage right in front of the town among the moored boats. Avoid the main wharf as this is reserved for tourist boats and cruise ship tenders.

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Dalys Wharf is a good spot to come ashore with your dinghy to explore the town. Provisions can be obtained from the well-stocked supermarket and neighbouring butchery. There is also a bank, pharmacy, library, service station, medical centre and hardware store in among a multitude of tourist shops, restaurants and cafes. A daily shuttle bus delivers passengers back to Christchurch in an hour should you have crew coming or going.

The Akaroa Yacht Club welcomes visiting sailors and has showers, toilets, rubbish disposal and kitchen facilities available for a charge of $5.00 per crew member per week. Further up the harbour you will find the French Farm Aquatic Club offering similar facilities and hospitality to visiting yachts. Take a wander up the road to visit the Barrys Bay Cheese Factory, visit the Duvauchelles Pub or have a game of golf at the Akaroa Golf Club.

Lying at 43° South, Banks Peninsula can be subject to some ferocious weather at times, but this can be easily predicted on the maritime forecasts and a sheltered spot is always close at hand. So if you are planning a trip to Marlborough, Fiordland or Stewart Island, please stop by. Visitors can always expect a very warm welcome to our special part of the world.


Christchurch’s Pleasant Point Yacht Club is in recovery mode following the devastating destruction it suffered in the 2010 earthquakes – but it needs help.

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“It’s been a long and rocky road,” says club spokesman Nigel Humphreys. “The 2010 Canterbury earthquake wrecked our buildings and facilities beside the South New Brighton Bridge, but there have been numerous other hurdles since then.

“We had to shift our sailing programme to the Naval Point Club Lyttelton and Mount Pleasant Club. And then the estuary was closed to sailing in 2011 because of polluted water. Soon after the committee put the club into recess for over a year, all while looking to find a new site suitable for building a new clubhouse and facilities. We made do with a temporary base – five shipping containers in the South New Brighton Park in 2013 – without power, hot showers or toilets.

“One of the containers was damaged by a falling tree in a March 2014 storm, and in March 2015 thieves made off with valuable equipment from a training boat. And if that wasn’t enough, in February 2016 an arson attack damaged junior training yachts and an inflatable coach boat and wrote off the storm-damaged container.”

But the club has turned the corner. The committee continued with developing designs for the new facilities and in February last year signed a lease with the Christchurch City Council for a proposed building site. Structural engineers completed the detailed design work for two buildings. Tenders to the work were distributed in February this year – for the first time giving the club an inkling of the likely cost.

“Early on in the design phase,” says Humphreys, “we thought our insurance money was going to cover about two thirds of the cost. Then we thought maybe half … but in reality we have about a third of the total needed. In round figures we need to find a million dollars.”

The club’s engaged a professional fundraising manager and has also established a Give a Little page –

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“We are looking for donations from members and supporters of the club,” says Humphreys. “Past members, New Zealand’s yachting and sporting communities, friends and family – even those we’ve never met yet who want to help a grass-roots club looking to get back on its feet again.

“In 2021, Pleasant Point Yacht Club will be celebrating a centenary of sailing – and Team New Zealand will be defending the America’s Cup – and we want to be watching it in our new clubhouse!”

Nigel can be contacted on 03-349 2422.