ONE FAMILY’S BOATING JOURNEY - Peninsula discoveries

In last month’s article, Chris shared his trials with the head on board SV Sauvage. The story now continues with the family’s Christmas cruise to the Coromandel Peninsula.

Having spent a few restful days anchored at Great Barrier Island, it was time to head to the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. Our goal? To reach Whiritoa for New Year’s Day. Whiritoa Beach lies 77 nautical miles southeast of Great Barrier Island between Waihi Beach and Whangamata.

We spent a few days poring over the forecasted wind and swell maps seeking the best sailing opportunities. And so, we pulled anchor on Christmas Day, headed out of Smokehouse Bay, past Okiore Point to traverse Colville Channel and down between Great Mercury Island and the Coromandel Peninsula to Flaxmill Bay, Whitianga.

Ancient Maori petroglyphs carved into the rock face.
A cage had been erected to protect the rock carvings

You may have experienced murky sailing conditions yourselves when heading round the top of the Coromandel Peninsula. On previous trips, heading from Great Barrier to Gulf Harbour, we had encountered one- to two-metre choppy swells and strong headwinds. This time, we wanted to avoid them.

Thankfully, it was sunny, the water calmed down and the wind dropped once we reached the Coromandel Peninsula’s east coast. As we neared Great Mercury Island, a large pod of dolphins joined us. It was serene and magical!

As detailed last month, we stopped in Flaxmill Bay by Whitianga to fix Sauvage’s head. A few days later, after checking the wind forecast, we then travelled south heading for Whiritoa. But as is the case when you forget to check the rain forecast, the conditions turned wet and cool. Grumpy, we found reprieve for the night at the secluded Tapuaetahi Bay 12nm to the south. Early the next morning, with sun again on our faces, we resumed our sail south.

Slipper Island.

Whiritoa Beach is an open bay with Tahua (Mayor Island) lying 15nm to the east. Swimming in the surf, lying on the beach and celebrating New Year’s Day with family were on the agenda. The weather was beautiful; we spent time onshore exploring surrounding beaches. We discovered a smaller bay found on the path to Waimama Bay, and the kids and I scaled down a sloping cliff to find ancient Maori cave art. It was both unexpected and moving – and interesting that someone had seen fit to provide a cage to protect the archaeological site, but damaged some art work in the process!

As the Whiritoa surf had a mind of its own, getting from the boat to land and vice-versa was eventful. After being tossed around, soaked and losing our tender outboard to the water (replaced the day after), we found that launching and landing at low tide was best. ‘Toa is a renowned surf beach and the waves don’t make for elegant landings, but the locals were excited to see a yacht anchored in the bay and made us very welcome!

On the first evening, Sauvage pulled and dragged a little in the high winds, but we re-anchored and stayed put for the next five days! It’s a great bay – just be careful of the surf when landing by dinghy.

Testing the new selfie stick. Hope the camera’s waterproof!
Dolphins often accompanied us on our journey

From Whiritoa we headed 13nm north for a three-day sojourn at Slipper Island. I cannot recommend this privately-owned island enough – South Bay provided easy anchoring with three to five metres of deep, clear water and a sandy bottom.

We kayaked, swam, and our 13-year-old practised his tender motoring skills. The beach offers end-to-end walks, picnics and swimming. It is very much a destination for boaties, being an easy 5nm journey across the water from Tairua.

Feeling content, relaxed and lazy, we pondered staying longer. On reflection, we should have, but the need to keep moving drew us on.

The old copper works on Kawau Island.

In our inexperience and complacency, we did not check all the sailing conditions for the day. Wrong move! Once we passed Shoe Island, we experienced three- to four-metre swells for the next 16nm – luckily, not breaking waves and with the crests about 20 seconds apart. Thoughts of turning around or moving closer to shore were wiped from our minds and we focussed on getting safely to Flaxmill Bay.

I found it stressful, exciting and exhilarating, all at the same time… My wife hated every minute of it! The kids were talking and surfing (the web, on their devices) and were blissfully unaware of the conditions.

We made our way motor-sailing, learning to turn the boat to approach the swells from other angles so as to make it into Flaxmill, where we set anchor for the night, found a bottle of wine to calm us down and reflected!

That day we learned of the growing death toll in New Zealand waters over the summer period. The weather and wind were perfect, but due to the swell, it was a terrible day to be boating. It is easy to get caught up in the fun of it all and forget to check the wind, rain and swell forecasts. The sea can be dangerous so checking sailing conditions before heading out is Sailing 101.

Our unexpected adventure reinforced to us why it is vital to always check conditions – all of them – even when you can see and feel the elements in front of you.

After two days of recovery time, we continued 16nm north to Huruhi Harbour on Great Mercury Island. We had nearly completed our Coromandel Peninsula leg.

Furling the genoa

A few days later, we navigated the Pacific-facing side of Great Barrier Island, anchoring at Whangawahia Bay for the night before heading back to our starting point of Smokehouse Bay. The weather was glorious, and we noted locations of interest as we sailed by (the whole place!). We intend to go back soon to have a lengthier look around.

We sought shelter at Great Barrier’s Kiwiriki Bay during Cyclone Cody and the Hunga-Tonga-HungaHa’apai underwater volcano explosion/tsunami (which we did not notice), before heading out around the north side of Little Barrier Island to Kawau Island. Two days later, with our sailing holiday drawing to a close, we headed across to the east side of Waiheke Island, where we sheltered from high winds in Man ‘O War Bay. We invested the time in a couple of longer walks and eating amazing pizza at the Man ‘O War Vineyards restaurant.

Our summer journey was unfortunately at an end. It had been full of amazing learning opportunities and a great deal of fun – we can’t wait for our next big sailing adventure. BNZ

Coromandel Gold

Alex and Lesley Stone take a jaunt into the rich and tumultuous history of Coromandel.

Our modest cruising adventure was to the Coromandel and the inordinately lovely archipelagos of the Motukawao Group, along the peninsula’s western coastline between the towns of Coromandel and Colville.

Just the naming of these places indicates a richness of history – perhaps, even, a confusion as to the telling of the stories thereof. Why, for instance, was Motukahaua re-named Happy Jack’s Island? Or why are the Ngamotukaraka also known as the Three Kings Islands?

There are times, also, when imaginative history fails and becomes as banal and prosaic as Bush Island (for Motukaramarama); Double Island (for Motuwi); Rabbit Island (for Moturua); Goat Island (for Motuoruhi); Shag Rock (for Motuokino). And just plain Cow and Calf Islands.

There’s mystery too, in the extraordinary rock formation at Tawhiti Point at the northern heads to the Coromandel (Waiau) Harbour. It looks like a winged victory but bears no name that I can find. I’d really like to know.

Te Patukirikiri are the tangata whenua of Coromandel. And it is said they first named the point Poroporo, after a New Zealand shrub with poisonous fruit, and also the same name for breadfruit in Polynesia. Te Patukirikiri were named after a famous victory on a beach on the island, where their only weapons (patu) to hand were rocks and stones (kirikiri).

This veritable nest of names is an intro to the Up the Creek mini-adventure that is getting up into the centre of Coromandel town.

First we had to anchor the boat – and, a bit like in the old days when ships would park ‘in the roads’ outside of a shallow-harbour town – we found a spot just off the white sand beach of Wyuna Bay, an arm of the bigger MacGregor Bay among some moored keelboats which indicated enough draft for all tides. Through the binoculars, we could see a few fishing boats and yachts tied up at the Coromandel wharf – leaning drunkenly. Yes, you hit the mud at low tide.

The early 1980s were the commercial fishing fleet’s apex (about 25 boats) when Coromandel wharf was landing the second-largest catch of snapper in New Zealand. The introduction of the Quota Management System quashed that – mostly.

So it’s something of a dinghy trip for us to get up the creek to Coromandel town, along a well-marked and curving channel. There’s a good few other dinghies making the same trip with us, and we all beach just by the bridge.

The channel will accommodate a launch, keelboat or trailer sailer at high tide – as evidenced by the haul-out facility just by a road bridge over the creek. We saw a 30-foot keeler being hauled out. With a dinghy/tinnie you’ve got about two hours either side of high tide to come and go. I imagine the bigger boats have to hit the tide just right.

Like tidal locals everywhere, the boaties of Coromandel town will have this all figured out to the finest degree. There’s an imposing fishing club building up the creek, just opposite the haul-out area.

And it’s a very worthwhile jaunt. For the creek brings you to the very centre of the delightful town, with a pull-out spot right opposite the mini central park. It’s appropriate that at the heart of Coromandel town, there is a ship – in a bottle. It’s a monument that’s a funky re-imagining of history (artists do that) by local, but Irish-born ceramicist and multi-media artist Rebekah Pearson.

The ship and its over-size, thick-glass bottle look like something from a fantasy tale. Which is entirely apposite, too, as the history of the town – and the whole eponymous peninsula – reads as a tale of high hopes, often dashed. And high hopes arising again.

The ship is the HMS Coromandel. She first visited the region in 1820 to collect kauri trees for Royal Navy spars. Local Māori, apparently, were enthusiastic supporters of the enterprise – there was good money to be made. Also with the trading of flax and pigs – mainly for muskets in those early days.

But the Coromandel wasn’t the first ship in these waters. The Te Arawa canoe – an oceanic voyaging waka – arrived from Polynesia in the 13th century. And then came Captain James Cook and the Endeavour crew in 1769. Others followed – the Fancy under Capt’n Dell in 1795, and the Dromedary just before the Coromandel in 1820.

Coromandel town was formed in the (extremely) high spirits that surrounded the first discovery of alluvial gold on the peninsula in 1842, right here in the Whangarahi Stream. Previously, the locality was named Kapanga. A more substantial gold discovery was made in nearby Driving Creek by Charles Ring in 1852.
But thereafter the gold rush diverted to Thames with its more complicated underground operations – mining hard quartz seams.

It’s just a short walk up to the School of Mines Museum, with its unconventional and absorbing mix of small-town museum items. And this time, with some quirky extra features. Like the inanimate bloke sleeping in the jailhouse re-creation, who gave Lesley a fright. Or the great collection of rocks and minerals from the School of Mines – which the building once was.

Or the stiff, staring mannequins of the Coromandel Silver Band, all arrayed in their bright red woollen jackets, their now tarnished instruments cradled in immobile hands. I thought it a pity that those jackets and horns now have no regular owners. That no fingers fly over those valves anymore.

There’s lots to learn here. And, as with all small museums, there are booklets with their own peculiar takes on history. I couldn’t resist the photocopied one titled The Town That Never Was. Turns out, a large mid-section of Whanganui Island was going to be the town called Coromandel.

An ambitious plan was drawn up for this in 1857. But town-planning was obviously in a rudimentary phase in those days. The sections were all way too steep, and besides, there wasn’t a perennial source of fresh water on the island, at least not big enough for a town.

Lots were surveyed, over-optimistically certainly, as if the island was as flat as its paper map. A map was drawn up by Charles Heaphy VC – “artist, draughtsman, surveyor, soldier and explorer.” It was about as accurate as some of his fanciful landscapes.

The sections were advertised and sold in England and elsewhere in New Zealand for £5 each. The book lists 18 English citizens who fell for the scam. Almost all of the allotments, the book tells us, “eventually became registered as Abandoned Land and reverted to the crown.”

This was after the island had been the domain of a larger-than-life figure, one William Webster, a ship’s carpenter originally from Maine in the USA. He married a Māori woman, a relative of the rangatira Te Horeta, and for a good while was a most powerful personage in the Hauraki Gulf.

The booklet says that “With his trading activities, ‘Wepiha, King of the Waiau’ commanded a great influence over a large area of the Hauraki Gulf, and none who depended on its treasures dared to transgress on Webster’s overall status as the keepr of the grove.” He bought the entire island from Māori in 1836, in a package worth £260, and which included muskets. (He later had to give a whole lot of land back, when the deal was scrutinised by the Colonial Government).

A pivotal figure in New Zealand’s colonial history – John Logan Campbell – visited our man Webster, and described him as a “big, rotund, jovial personality with plenty of brains and know-how, not unlike the proverbial John Bull characterisation of old.”

The museum booklet is less complimentary: “In setting up his wharehoko [trading post] Webster gathered around him a motley crowd of tradesmen, convict escapees, drifters and such-like, whom he employed in various activities to further his holdings.” For quite a while, his place was the only post office in the Hauraki Gulf.

The most charming element of the Coromandel Museum is the room devoted to Marjorie Ruby Moore (née Preece, the flyer tells us), who “came to the Coromandel with her family in 1925. She became a well-known local identity and farmer’s wife. Over her lifetime she put together an eclectic collection of family, domestic and farming memorabilia which she housed in her shed on her property as a private museum.”

That entire collection was bequeathed to the museum after her death in 2007. The loveliest thing is a hand-made book by her daughter, singing her mum’s praises.

We again encounter the work of Rebekah Pearson, the ship-in-a-bottle artist, at the museum. Her quirky wee map is added to our merchandise as we exit through the gift shop (the desk at the front, manned by gracious local volunteer ladies).

The tide is beckoning, and the walk back down the main street to the creek is a bit more purposeful than before. Still, it’s just the thing for the land-felled yachtie.

Lesley photographs the dramatic red pou carvings outside the old Court House, composing them artfully with the Pākehā war memorial behind. We note that one of the carvings was done by Paki Harrison, a tohunga whakairo (master carver) who we had previously met at Kennedy Bay marae, opposite on the peninsula. We are charmed by the ceramic self-portrait tiles of the local kids at the park. Buskers and street stalls slow us up, in the most delightful way.

We bump unto two old shipmates. Tony tells me about a dolphin that scratched its back on the forefoot of his yacht coming here, for five minutes at least. He has the phone footage to prove it. Steve recommends the craft beers in the well-frequented pub right behind him. He heads straight back in. Instead, we opt for the almond croissants at the 4 Square.

A quick yarn with the locals who have hauled out a keeler, a wave to a puku-bound bloke watching the TV in his launch in the mangroves, and we’re back down the creek again along with the other dinghies.

A Saturday stroll in Coromandel town is a fine Up the Creek outing. And one that’s deservedly popular. BNZ