The Stories Unfold
26 November 2008 | Opua, New Zealand
Turns out the gale, which we familiarly call "our gale", was the biggest one of the year in New Zealand. One cruising club member who gave Steve a ride when he hitched in Paihia said so. Des, a Kiwi weather institution who sounds like Old Father Time on the radio, says he was scared in his house on land. That explains some of the cheering and clapping as we pulled up to the dock. Leaving Minerva Reef, we quickly picked up SE winds on the front of a high pressure and had a brisk, sit on deck and be dry sail for 3 days. Johan, our crew, quickly showed himself to be an 11 on a scale of 1-10 and life was good. We ate well, hearty hot meals three times a day, even if they did include lentils and eggplant and not enough meat for the boys. We had brownies, and kept count of how many each of us ate (witnessed and unwitnessed). Johan hauled in a mahi-mahi, although that did not end the lentil jokes. But we knew the high would move, bringing pleasant easterlies, then northeasterlies...then the cold front and the dreaded low. The forecasts began to include numbers like gusts to 50 kts and seas to 23 feet. Intensive discussion by radio of strategy began among the boats at sea in the area as well as with the weather routers. To follow a rhumb line (shortest distance between two points) or to make westing (traditional advice of Kiwi sailors)? To heave to and wait or to plow on? We poured over weatherfaxes and even downloaded sexy multi-colored gribs to decide. At one point we called Commanders and Dave said they had held a meeting (it wasn't just the sailors but the meteorologists who were pulling their hair) and recommended going for it. So we prepared Hannah well, clearing the decks completely and doing things like tying down the furling headsail and mainsail with extra lines. The cold front moved in with drizzling then driving rain from slate grey, ropey clouds and then the low came. The seas began shooting frothy spume off the crests then breaking here and there. I reminded myself of how friendly gentle ocean swell looks from underwater when snorkeling. Our course, now a rhumb line after westing, was dead down wind, hardest to sail with the Monitor windvane, so we began babysitting it and making corrections. We just had the staysail out, not the storm jib which we probably should have, going with the meteorologists' thoughts that winds would be no more than 40 kts. Before dark, the line that runs the Monitor broke; since we had less than a day to go we knew that handsteering would be best. I took the watch as the sun was setting, now dressed in three layers of pure Pacific Northwest clothes and concerned that I would be hardpressed to steer in the dark. Through my fogged up glasses I could just make out that Steve had written "I love you" on the portlight from the warmth and quiet of our cabin. Johan did not take watch, due to inexperience steering, but made himself incredibly useful by cooking up dinner at "Chez Johan" (that vintage wine sure tasted like Tang to me, though) and bringing up mugs of coffee and snacks (OK, the candy bars floated all over when we got our first genuine "pooping" of the whole trip) and just keeping us company through the night. No one slept much. The seas built to about 5m, not gigantic, but always wild in the dark. Steve steered for the next five hours, fully focused, while I tracked all the freighters and fishing boats that surrounded us as we approached NZ. Just before dawn, things settled. As we came to Bay of Islands, fog appeared, looking for all the world like we were on Puget Sound. Wrong turn??? By the time we tied up to the quarantine dock in Opua, really no one cared that they searched one's boat with good humor and took away lots of food. We were glad to be here and tied up. It wasn't a hurricane or a storm or even a strong gale, but we felt the haunting of deaths on this water in the past. We were at an edge, using everything we had learned in the last years and playing for keeps...and it was pretty fun. We weren't scared, just paying mindful attention. We feel like we accomplished something. We proceeded with the arrival drill of laundry and showers and talk, feeling so free we didn't even have a need to hook up to the likely marginal marina wifi. Marinas are like airports, more similar than different: one treats oneself to food at the restaurant which is good (not bad or great), showers are more or less hot or mildewy,... I don't feel like I am in a foreign country yet. However, to order a cup of coffee one asks for a long long black. We continue to struggle with metric. And a well-found boat here is one that looks like a wolf or a shark, preferably painted grey and white with red trim, and called something Y-chromosomish and sporty. Bay of Islands just feels like the San Juans, but slower. We met two Kiwi apple growers who sell to Yakima and Wenatchee and somehow get in on their bulk sales, as well as personally supervising purchase of parts and loading on the docks in China. The world is small. The papers report that the economy here is tumbling like many others, and Kiwis are fleeing to Australia for jobs. The haka, the beautiful Maori war dance done now at sports events and visits by the Dalai Lama and everything in between is being questioned as politically incorrect. Helen Clarke is out. Speaking of politics, my condolences to Alaskans. A Thanksgiving feast is traditionally held at the Opua Cruising Club. Melinda is going to Midland to celebrate Thanksgiving there with Nolan, which is an all school family event that includes visits by the Mexican families who participate in the junior exchange program. I am reading Homer's "The Odyssey", having intended to start it since we left Seattle, but not having been engaged until now. When I walked along the coastal path yesterday, terra firma felt much less definitive and far more ethereal than it ever had. The ocean impacts us. At least we know enough now to recognize the odd crackling below and around the boat as probably coming from snapping shrimp. It seems like Obama is calling into service smart and ethical people. We give thanks.