Captain’s Log: Week 5

Rough seas and inclement weather put our sailors' skills to the test this week. John and Robin reach movie-famous Milford Sound and make a few friends.

What a magical part of New Zealand! This looks like something Tim Wilson of Queenstown might paint. Now all we need is a beam of sunlight to activate the snow white of the clouds.

What a magical part of New Zealand! This looks like something Tim Wilson of Queenstown might paint. Now all we need is a beam of sunlight to activate the snow white of the clouds.

Day 1 and 2: Milford Sound

On arrival, Milford was blanketed in low cloud, creating an otherworldly atmosphere redolent of Lord of the Rings. “At first, I said to Robin, ‘What a shame the weather is crap for our run in,’ but very quickly changed my mind. Vertical rock faces disappeared into the mist; water cascaded down massive rock structures towering thousands of feet above us. I was spellbound.” Crawling along at 5 to 7 knots just meters from the cliffs, they paused occasionally to take photos and listen to the waterfalls, like the many tourist-laden boats in front of them.

Misty waterfall in Milford Sound
Mist-shrouded waterfalls and peaks made for stunning photo ops. Meters of freshwater lay on top of the seawater, meaning our saltwater pump was delivering freshwater!


Mitre Peak was on our right and lost in clouds; we didn’t see it until the following morning. My depth sounder failed immediately as the waters were simply too deep for the transponder to cope with.” The truly awesome landscape similarly overwhelmed John, his camera and even his mobile device: “It was almost like rock cathedrals reaching high into the sky. I tried to set up the satellite phone to let people know we had arrived safely, but even that wouldn’t work in the confines of Milford Sound.” 
Cruising past sheer cliffs in Milford Sound
Cruising past sheer cliffs thousands of feet high. The water beneath the boat was over 1,000 feet deep!


During the night, high winds bumped the boat against the large wooden piles they were tied to. “We had fenders out too, to soften the impact, but with a big tide swing and being able to tie only one side with enough slack, we just had to live with it. The marina had no floating pontoons but, hey, we were much happier here than swinging at anchor. In fact, as we would soon discover, anchoring would have been a major issue.” 
The proverbial pot of gold: Sun peeking through the clouds at Milford Sound paints a low-profile rainbow

The proverbial pot of gold: Just enough sun peeking through paints this low-profile rainbow


When our sailors awoke on Saturday morning, they were awestruck. Mitre Peak, briefly clear of cloud, towered more than 5,000 feet above the surrounding mountains, prettily packed with snow. Breaking from the view for a hot cooked breakfast, they decided to take it all in again by traveling back out through the sound. 


“The wind at the entrance was 25 knots, but we were keen to fish so we found a relatively sheltered spot, steering clear of the cray-pot buoys we could see bobbing around on the surface.” When Robin used the remote to drop anchor, the winch began lowering a pile of chain and wouldn’t stop. Resetting the circuit breaker stopped the winch and got the helm control working again, but the remote could lift but not lower the anchor. “I decided that lunch would be a good idea about now, which we enjoyed while discussing the drama of what had just happened. But it wasn’t over yet!”


Robin monitored the winch from the bow as John pulled up about 40 meters of chain. By the time 17 meters remained, they were in 21 meters of water. “The winch was groaning, but we continued lifting the chain to discover a huge bird’s nest of knotted rope wrapped tightly around the anchor. We were free from the bottom but had a whole new issue to deal with.” John took the helm while Robin set off in the tender with a sharp knife. By now, the stern was dangerously close to the rocks and Robin was underneath the bow, completely obscured from view. After some misgivings, John pushed forward using just the port engine. “It was still blowing 25 knots, on the nose. Next thing I heard was the rattle of the winch clip, so I knew that Robin had done his job up front.” 


Once clear of the cray pot, John “retrieved the last few meters of chain and anchor and engaged both engines to get the hell out of there!” Fishing was by now out of the question. Their dinghy loaded with a twisted section of rope, including a broken float, they headed back in. “What a waste of a day! Later, when talking with Mike Shand, a local cray fisherman, he said, ‘Oh, hundreds of pots out there have been lost.’ Needless to say, we won’t be fishing there again! We opened a bottle of wine and had dinner, reflecting on our eventful day in the mystical magnificence of Milford Sound.”  


Day 3: Milford Sound to George Sound

Rain fell steadily throughout the night, giving the boat a thorough wash-down, “something we’re beginning to expect down here. I’ve given in to track pants today—no more shorts. It was getting cold, for a Hamilton boy!” 


In preparation for their four-hour journey, they checked the engines and oil and water levels. “We filled the boat with water, using my new filter for the first time. We had plenty of water but wanted the extra ballast as we are now very low on fuel, 100 liters plus our reserve.” 


Planning to refuel at Doubtful Sound, they “ran the gauntlet to George Sound, another long sound and just as magnificent as Milford, really. Not as many waterfalls but very steep, mountainous terrain. We saw what looked like a working boat ahead of us and followed them deep into the sound, where we were hoping to anchor for the night. The entire sound was teeming with kahawai, more than I’ve ever seen over such a large expanse of water. We were later to find out that this is the preferred bait for cray pots.” 

George Sound mists and mountains

The mists and mountains of George Sound


As they arrived at the keyhole end of George Sound, the skipper of the other boat, Amazon, called out to them to go to channel 10 on the VHF. “Under his guidance, we dropped anchor and reversed to attach a stern line, but the Amazon crew had already attached one of theirs and were running it out to us in their dinghy. Southern hospitality, New Zealand-style!” 


The Hansen brothers, well-known in these parts, suggested that they go down the northern fork to a waterfall fed by Lake Ellis. “We took the tender there rather than reset the boat. The fall was amazing, with huge water flows that are hard to show in a picture. We walked up a tributary creek on a carpet of lush moss and lichen—very easy on our bare feet! 

Walking at base of waterfall
Clear waters and rocks

Crystal-clear waters: Try to figure out where the rocks end and the water begins!

“Our new besties even gave us a couple of crays and some blue cod, so we dropped them a Hawke’s Bay shiraz to say thanks. Fish for dinner at last, yippie!” Pumpkin and ginger soup was followed by crayfish that Robin had barbecued with butter, garlic, salt and pepper. “It was beautiful! After dinner, Robin had a crack at fishing and pulled in a couple of kahawai plus a few rock cod, though not the blue cod we were wanting.”


A very windy evening made them glad they had secured the boat well. The weather forecast for their next leg wasn’t great either: seas of 3 to 4 meters with northwest winds of 35 knots. “It was to be a following sea, therefore not too hard on the boat, only the skipper!”


Day 4: Milford Sound to Doubtful Sound

Feeling even more pressured to get nearer fuel, after breakfast they set off for Doubtful Sound, named by Captain Cook in 1770.


“He didn’t chart this fjord as he had concerns that Bauza Island, situated right in the middle of the entrance, would shield the inlet from winds. An easterly wind was required to sail back out, and he had already discovered that easterlies occurred about once a month. Not wanting to risk being stuck there for a whole month, he continued on his voyage.” It would be 23 years before Doubtful Sound was charted by hydrographer Felipe Bauza, second lieutenant under Spanish Captain Alessandro Malaspina, the first Europeans to explore and chart Doubtful Harbour.


Showing zero fuel in the main tank and a reserve of 500 liters, they had plenty for the trip but felt some trepidation at seeing the empty fuel gauge. “On turning to run south, we soon discovered the size and speed of the sea, the largest we had encountered to date: 5 to 6 meters and 52 knots! We had squalls coming through, with the expected high winds in front of those. That really made it interesting. On one large set I couldn’t hold our course, even with full rudder, and we broached, rolling back over the top of the wave. But thanks to her Alan Warwick design, she sat flat on the side of the wave, albeit at an angle that most boaties would not enjoy!”


Peaking at 22 knots, Horizon III buried its nose in a huge wave in front, sending water spilling over the bow, entirely filling the anchor locker. Pulling the throttles to get the bow to rise and tip off the excess water, they climbed another monster wave to escape the huge one looming behind them. “It came right up onto the cockpit floor! I felt the push from behind at the helm, my body and head lurching backwards. Horizon III weighs 22 tons, so imagine the power of the ocean to feel that huge shove from the stern! 


“Slowing down only seemed to make it more difficult to navigate the extremely messy sea. I could see the impressions where Robin’s hands had been holding onto the instrument surround—it was a white-knuckle ride! Apart from the concentration required, I enjoyed the run in a sea that totally lived up to its reputation. Again, Horizon III continued to react consistently and, most importantly, predictably, keeping me feeling good about our situation. Thankfully, this boat has no bad habits and the great condition of the boat showed its worth.”


Cruising in around 2:30pm, John radioed Deep Cove Lodge to see if they could get some fuel. Thankfully, 2,300 liters were available, though at a price. “As diesel is trucked weekly to Manapouri then barged across the lake to the western end, pumped into a waiting truck and then driven to Doubtful Sound, it was expensive! We were just happy to be sitting low in the stern with a very full tank. Finally, we could relax—it had been one hell of a day. We shared a bottle of wine to reward ourselves for our courage. 


“Shortly after midnight, we were awoken by the most violent thunderstorm, with huge bolts of lightning. Horizon III was thoroughly doused in hundreds of millimetres of rain, which we were pleased about, as it washed away all the salt from the previous day.”


Day 5: Doubtful Sound to Dagg Sound

“The following morning, we got the kayaks organized to get a better look at the waterfall we had listened to during the night.” They also wanted to investigate the tail race from the Manapouri Dam. After paddling up it for 100 meters or so, they realized they weren’t going anywhere. “The current was just so strong, water was screaming out of there! We turned and ran with the flow and were out in a matter of 30 seconds.

kayaking in tail race of Manapouri Dam
Robin kayaking down the tail race of the Manapouri Dam. Note the color of the water following the storm


“We returned to see all sorts of action, with a couple of vehicles full of blokes all kitted out for a hunting and diving trip. The Speight’s was already flowing and it was only 10am! They were a friendly bunch, and when we left Deep Cove later for Crooked Arm, we realized that the boats in front of us were this crew. Their fizz boat came over and we had a good old yarn with Paul, a boat salesman, and Trev, a farmer—over a Speight’s, naturally.”


Attempting to press on to Dusky Sound, John and Robin found themselves in extreme winds approaching 50 knots. Bailing and returning to their anchorage, they radioed a neighboring boat to see if they had picked up the weather forecast. “They had trouble hearing it too. They were having trouble with their generator so Robin offered to assist.” While they were unable to restore the generator, they did enjoy the company of Dave, Grant and the crew aboard Jewel. “They were very helpful in explaining the things we could do in Dusky Sound and Preservation Inlet, places to anchor and the like.”  


Abating rain and gusts made them decide to give it another go. “We ventured out of Doubtful Sound through relatively high seas, 15 knots on the nose. But as we continued, the sea became steeper and closer together, which we put down to the ‘funnel effect’ of the entrance. We continued, expecting it to improve slightly once clear of the funnel but instead it continued to get worse. Soon we were in 5-meter seas with some sets reaching 6 to 8 meters! We were running slow, with me working hard to look after the boat. We had one heavy fall off a huge wave that had no water behind it at all, but Horizon III just kept on keeping on, albeit now at only 7 knots.” 


Not wishing to navigate in the dark, they escaped into Dagg Sound and settled in for the night, reflecting on another tough day on the helm. “Our plan is to get up early and head off, but if conditions are the same as today, we’ll just anchor up and fish instead. Lesson of the day: Always have a plan B. The lack of photos gives you some idea that our primary focus was survival at sea!”


Day 6: Dagg Sound to Dusky Sound

Arriving at the entrance of Dagg Sound the following morning, they judged conditions to be 25 percent better than the day before, “an easier journey of about three hours or so, with 25 knots in the afternoon and the corresponding deterioration of sea conditions.” Marveling over how their perspective on sea conditions has changed since cruising New Zealand’s southern waters, John says, “A 3- to 4-meter sea now seems very reasonable, whereas in the gulf we wouldn’t even venture out! After seven days of terrible weather, if you don’t want to be here forever, you need to make the best of the opportunities that do present.” With the sea running from the southwest, they sat on 8.5 knots on autopilot. “She was tracking beautifully. We still needed to monitor closely for rogue sets; there were always a few sneaking up on us.


“We rolled into Breaksea Sound without drama and cruised all the way down the Acheron Passage to Cook Passage, Dusky Sound. The look and feel were quite similar to other sounds, though it was hard to judge properly in the terrible weather we’ve been having. With only one half-day of patchy sun in eight days, we are beginning to feel the gloom of isolation.” With no cell service or Internet and barely any VHF coverage, they were unable to receive a complete weather update, which made planning difficult. Searching for a mooring, they tucked into a sheltered inlet where a houseboat was moored with a fizz boat. Alas, no one was home. 


“I had been radioing on VHF for some time, but we got no reply. That’s because we were the only ones there! Just as we turned to go deeper into Dusky, a helicopter flew in. Like Tom Cruise in an action movie, he swooped straight down over the hill, turned hard left and landed on top of the houseboat in a matter of seconds. I was impressed!” Remembering that helicopters also monitor channel 10, John called the pilot once he was back in his chopper. “He responded immediately. I explained that we needed a mooring for the night and he said to head into Supper Cove by the DOC hut.” Five minutes later, he radioed to let them know that he had just passed over the bay and confirmed that the mooring was available. “God only knows how these guys fly through here! Visibility was absolutely terrible and, speaking as a former light-plane pilot, there is no way I would be up there.”


About 45 minutes later, they moored in Supper Cove. While Robin looked into an anchor-sensor problem, John repaired the port-side windscreen wiper; two screws had gone over the side in heavy sea conditions. Afterward, the brothers dined on bacon-wrapped chicken breasts and the customary salad and potatoes. “It is worth noting that we have been running for 12 days now without any additional food supplies. We have only two complete meals left. We reckon we can go another five days before we start looking at each other as a possible meal? We still have lots of avocados, tomatoes, beetroot, grapes and other fruit, so we have been eating well all the way. The lobster and fish we were given by the Hansen brothers a couple of days ago certainly helped us extend our meal supplies.  


“We were both tired after another long day at the helm in tough conditions. By 9pm, it was off to bed with high expectations of a fine day tomorrow. Yeah, right!”


Day 7: Supper Cove

“I awoke early to ... you guessed it: torrential rain, which later turned into thunderstorms and lightning then more heavy rain; it never stopped all day. I decided to get out the yoga mat that had been gathering dust. It was great to stretch and do some exercise again; I am missing going to the gym. We were going to go fishing but gave that a miss after the rain check and instead carried out some ceiling-panel maintenance, checking all the fixing screws, many of which needed nipping up after the rugged journey south. It was great to be occupied for the day instead of sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves. 


“After eight consecutive days of crap weather, we had the best forecast since we arrived in the sounds.” Saturday: rain easing, seas of 2 meters rising later in the day, wind rising to 25 knots. Sunday: 35 knots, rough seas and a 3.5-meter swell. Monday: 35 knots, rough seas. Tuesday: 50 knots easing to 40 knots in the afternoon, seas of at least 5 meters. “Robin and I are just hoping Wednesday is better because we’ll be heading to Bluff Harbor, unless the wind remains at 50 knots. We can do 35 knots, gusting 45 knots, but no more. Once we get around Puysegar Point (Preservation Inlet), we will have wind and sea from behind, which is a lot easier on the boat. 
Supper Cove, Fiordland National Park

Nature’s teaser: breakfast in Supper Cove following a whole day of torrential rain


“We will head off to Preservation Inlet to sit it out until Wednesday. The journey will take us about 2.5 hours, depending on sea conditions, which will be 25 degrees off our starboard side, meaning that we will be rolling side to side quite a lot. We were so pleased to be shown what the sounds can look like on a beautiful, still day, with mirror-smooth waters reflecting the extreme landscapes of this breathtaking region, even though we were now heading out to sea again. Before we had exited Dusky, it was beginning to cloud over again. Bugger!”

By Anna Ngo

Oceanmax International

Blog post published 27 April 2018