Part one of a three-part adventure describing Dave and Sue Mackay’s epic journey of discovery around New Zealand.

One by one the fur seal pups edged their way into the sunny tidal pool at the edge of their creche. Thick, lush bush where they had been hiding was the curtain, the smooth granite rock shelf was the stage and, anchored only metres away with a stern line ashore, we were the audience.

One by one they slid into the pool and entered the realm in which they are perfect, splashing and frolicking with one another, their play so innocent.

Enter the villain! The grey heron apparently had rights over this pool and was having none of this intrusion. Shoulders hunched and feathers extended, she fitted the stereotype admirably. A peck on each pup’s nose sent the stars of the show scurrying back behind the curtain, a tad less innocent, their play curtailed. But not for long – one by one they plucked up enough courage to gingerly make their way back to the pool, hoping not to be spotted.

Sue in Dusky Sound.

We were in Luncheon Cove, Dusky Sound and the seal pups were playing just metres from where Captain Cook and his Resolution shore party had dined on crayfish in 1773. The remains left by a sealing gang in 1792, just 19 years after Cook, were still visible on the shore.


Fiordland grabs you and immerses you in its splendour. Every day something happens that is either incredibly beautiful, historically significant, full of grandeur or packed with adrenalin. It’s a place where you have no choice but to be totally in tune with nature.

But this is Aotearoa New Zealand. For much of our 2,300-nauticalmile circumnavigation we had been left reaching for superlatives, such is the beauty of our country.

At the start, on our first day out of Auckland in early November 2020, the Hauraki Gulf went glassy-calm as we crossed the Firth of Thames, and Sue and I were joined by dolphins as we approached the Coromandel Peninsula. Without a ripple, the surface between the dolphins and us was invisible, leaving us feeling ever so close to dolphins’ world as they hugged the bow of Flying Cloud, carried along by the pressure wave.

Preservation Inlet with the Spit Islands in the background.

Dolphin encounters became a feature of the trip. Leaving Akaroa Harbour in the South Island six weeks later in rough nor-easterly conditions, a pod of rare Hectors dolphins escorted us out and onwards towards Timaru. Much more frenetic in their behaviour than their big cousins, they would dart in for a few seconds on the bow and then loop back for a ride on the stern wave. Over and over, mother and baby part of the entourage. Their escort served us well, quelling the anxiety that comes with putting to sea in blustery conditions.

Sailing down the east coast of both the North and South Islands in November and December, we enjoyed ‘city breaks’ in the ports and harbours along the way. In Tauranga we sat out gales for a week, visiting friends and utilising the yacht services and chandleries for those ‘last few jobs’ on Flying Cloud.

After the remoteness of the East Cape region with miles of coastline and beaches and very few signs of habitation, Gisborne with its restaurants and cafés felt quite cosmopolitan. In Napier, we enjoyed the hospitality of the very accommodating Napier Sailing Club and took time out to explore the architecture of the Art Deco capital of the world (the city was rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1931 in the Art Deco style of the day). We enjoyed the company of farmer friends in the hills as we waited for a weather window for one of the longer legs of the journey, the two-day passage to Lyttelton.


Johnny and Adam preparing smashed mussels

Mick, Johnny and Johnny Mac joined me for this leg, which was going to be tight to fit in before the predicted southerly bluster. Meteorologist Roger Badham’s comment “you are really going to want to be in before the southerly hits” made a suitable impression on us!

It didn’t look like a lot of wind ahead of us as we closed on Lyttelton Heads. We were motoring in less than 10 knots of breeze but the temperature was plummeting. By the time we were in the harbour, we had rain squalls with 30-plus knots and the guys were clamouring for extra layers. Safely tied up in the marina, we wasted no time finding a pub with a fire. Yes, we really were glad to be in before that one hit!

As we sailed south, the seriousness of where we were headed was reinforced. We have sailed over 20,000 miles in Flying Cloud, mostly coastal New Zealand north of Auckland and out into the Pacific, with trips to Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga and New Caledonia, encountering some heavy weather along the way. It was important not to view this trip as anything less rigorous than crossing an ocean.

Common dolphins in the Firth of Thames, above.

Friends who had cruised this way before suggested that we connect with Captain Cook’s movements up and down the coast of New Zealand as we went. On the leg from Tauranga to East Cape we stopped for the night behind Moutohora Island (Whale Island) off Whakatane. Sue and Jan – who had joined us for the leg from Tauranga to Gisborne – both felt queasy from a lumpy leftover nor-easterly swell as we negotiated the reefs to the northwest of the island. As described in Cook’s journals, the Endeavour had to negotiate these same reefs to anchor behind the island in 1769. We marvelled at the seamanship, vision and intuition of this great seafarer and his crew. Here were we, coming in with every navigation aid known to the modern sailor, but they were a million miles from help, feeling their way through hazardous, unchartered waters.

We continued to connect with Cook. In Tolaga Bay, we explored Freshwater Cove off which Endeavour anchored for several days after being told by local Maori that they could find freshwater and firewood there.

In Gisborne, we felt the tragedy of Cook’s first landing in New Zealand where the encounters between local Maori and Cook’s crew went horribly wrong. Five Maori were killed. Joseph Banks onboard Endeavour recorded in his journal, “Thus ended the most disagreeable day my life has yet seen, black be the mark for it, and heaven send that such may never return to embitter future reflection”.


Cascade Basin, Long Sound – waterfalls and steep-sided fiords.

The closest we felt to Cook was in Dusky Sound in Fiordland. The remoteness of the place has kept it largely unchanged since Cook was there on Resolution during his second voyage to Aotearoa in 1771. We had a reasonable weather window with 15-knot nor-westerlies to make the move from Chalky Inlet to Dusky Sound in early February (a stretch of coast with the potential to be every bit as wild as Puysegur Point to the south) and we were grateful that friends TL and Harriet had joined us to share the sailing.

We rounded the west cape of New Zealand and then the south point of Dusky Sound and the sea calmed down as we sailed into the inlet. Needing a place to anchor, we decided on Pickersgill Harbour. Entering through the narrow North Channel as the Resolution had done, we marvelled at the seamanship and the ability of the crew to manoeuvre a bulky sailing ship through such a tight entrance.

                                                                Native birds like this bellbird are under threat everywhere

With virgin bush right to the water’s edge (except for the trees cleared from Astronomers Point to observe the heavens and pinpoint the latitude and longitude), it felt much the same to us as it must have for Cook and his crew.

Except for the fauna. Where the coastal and forest birds had been abundant (the explorers could dine well), those that remain are struggling to survive.

Luncheon Cove, a short sail across Dusky Inlet from Pickersgill Harbour, where Cook’s shore party had dined on crayfish and we watched seal pups play, is on the south side of Anchor Island. This is the epicentre of a national effort led by the Department of Conservation to save and protect native wildlife threatened with extinction. The plight of our native birds in particular, and the monumental effort of a few people to save them, went to the heart of our Fiordland experience. For us, being here amongst this vast, remote wilderness of such stunning beauty and realising all was not right took on profound significance.

The sea’s bounty meant we never went hungry

The conservation effort is told beautifully in Tamatea Dusky by Peta Carey: the people and their work; the trials and tribulations; the constant barrage of incoming predators; the wins and the losses as they bide time staving off extinctions until more help can be found.

It started with Richard Henry, who in the 1890s set himself up on Pigeon Island just to the north of Anchor Island, capturing kiwi and kakapo off the mainland and transferring them to island sanctuaries to escape the invasion of stoats and rats. The remains of his wharf, house and kiwi enclosures are still there today, 120 years later. As we looked around, we could not help but be touched by the dedication of a lone man whose keen observations and meticulous note-taking has served as reference material for latter-day conservation efforts. BNZ

Magnificent Bullers albatross were our daily companions in the Deep South


We could not have had a better platform to begin with than Flying Cloud, a 47ft cutter-rigged sloop. The original owner had her built to sail down to the sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand. Designed by Paul Whiting and built by his brother Tony in solid GRP and finished by Allan Porter, she is a ‘go anywhere’ boat – an incredibly strong, heavy displacement, fast sailing boat.

Some years ago, with this trip in the back of our minds, we had her re-powered with a 110hp Yanmar engine and a four-blade Maxprop. The advice from experienced operators out of Stewart Island and Fiordland was that to go this far south you need to be able to motor into 50 knots coming in and out of harbours and fiords.

Being a cutter-rigged sloop, we have a range of sail and reefing combinations available to us without having to deal with any over-sized sails. Being fast under both motor and sail allowed us to use narrower weather windows to get out and around and back into shelter. (Note that we met other yachts that lacked our motoring and/or sailing capabilities and they all fared well. But their movements were more restricted and their comfort tested as they were forced to endure rougher conditions).

Dusky Sound seal pups frolicking in a rock pool.

The best bit of kit we added to the boat for the trip was the ‘clears’ which totally enclosed the cockpit, effectively giving us an additional room on the boat. When it rained, we felt less confined and the inside of the boat stayed drier.

Sandfly screens are a necessity for Fiordland! We had screens made for the forward and main saloon hatches which were held in place with velcro. The screen over the companionway had a zip, making for quick entry and exit. Sandflies can drive you mad if you give them a chance, so you really want to make sure they can’t get in! However they don’t like wind or rain, or being far from shore, so cruising down the middle of a fiord was generally sandfly-free. Fly-spray worked well sprayed out through the screen in advance to clear the cockpit ahead of moving out there. We also had commercially-available fine mesh veils which fitted over our hats. Insect repellent was an essential.

Rounding Cape Kidnappers.

What we should have had installed was a heater. We were lucky and the season was predominantly fine, but just two or three days of incessant rain, which you can count on at some stage, leaves everything damp.

Fiordland was the only part of the trip where we had to think carefully about provisioning as there are no shops (nothing even vaguely resembling a shop). We found everything we needed in Oban, Stewart Island, to be well supplied for the weeks in Fiordland.

Sue and Harriet wearing sandfly gear and Timaru’s mooring zone.

Rata blooming at Port Adventure.