Gunpowder, Treason & Plot
It’s the night of November the 5th. Bonfires line the beach like beacons from Hastings to Napier, and we laugh and drink under a drizzling, red sky. Finn hands out fireworks to his new companions, and we shoot them upwards, like young wizards defending Hogwarts. In two days, we are to set sail on Finn’s boat from Napier to Aotea – The Great Barrier Island, and then on to Auckland.
Finn is a local Napier boy, who has sailed hard to get where he is today at the age of 22. His friend Kyle is American, an experienced sailor, and the two met working as sailing instructors in the Caribbean. My first impression of Kyle was that he kind of resembles Leonardo DiCaprio, but I pushed aside any Titanic references circling my head. That makes up the 30% of our crew who can actually sail!
Then there’s us – the couch-surfers. Dani is a bright and bubbly chick from München; Fabian is a food passionate from Stuttgart; Luca is the quiet one from Köln, and Simon is an artistic dude from Bavaria. Then there’s me, the Pom.
The Dulcinea is a 44ft Steel Ketch yacht with 2 masts. She has three sails: Jib – front; Main – middle, and Mizzen – rear. She sits just 2m below the surface, and her led-weighted bottom makes her a ‘Knock over’, meaning no matter how much she keels she is near impossible to capsize. The Dulcinea was custom built in California in 1986, and was sailed across the Pacific to New Zealand by Finn in 2013. She can sleep up to 10 people, but 7 is cosy enough.
Bananas On Board
Today we set sail, leaving Napier midmorning after the boys went for a HUGE shop. Before we left, we ate all the bananas that had been brought on board, because it’s bad luck to sail with bananas. Kyle told us that when shipwrecks were discovered, bananas were the only things they could salvage, floating around amongst the debris, so the general consensus became that bananas were bad luck. Also, they were known to bring cockroaches and rats on board, spreading famine.
As we prepared to leave the harbour, we met a character on one of the neighbouring houseboats. He is an old Maori fella, who has lived on his little boat for years. The fascinating thing is, he is blind. Kyle heard him calling out to us, “Is that Finn and his crew? You off today?” The old man got chatting about the goings on in the harbour – the other boats being washed and maintained and who’s boat was where. He knew everything just by the sound, and he moved around the harbour as though he could see perfectly well.
We are heading N.E, destination East Cape. We’ve seen gannets and dolphins already, cruising alongside the boat as we passed their feeding spot. The sea is rolling, but the weather seems to be holding so far, with sunny spells and a light wind.
Mid-afternoon. It is quite rough, half the crew are seasick. We had to navigate shallow, rocky waters between Mahia Peninsula and Portland Is. The swell was huge, making the enormous waves vertical. The boys are spewing alternately off each side as the sails pop and the boom swings. Dani and I seem to be fairing pretty well, enjoying the ride, if not a little sunburnt. Albatross have been following us most the way; spectacular birds that swoop and run along the surface of the waves. Fabian is particularly taken by them. He’s been at the bow for hours, watching and photographing them.
A long 8 hours of sailing and we’ve finally dropped anchor in a small, sheltered bay between Mahia and Gisborne. Fabian has cooked rice and mince with veggies and the guys are having a few beers and playing cards. Finn’s teaching the crew how to play a card game called Presidents and Arseholes – a bit of a sailing tradition for him – and they keep yelling ‘SCUM’ at one another. The Germans are pretty good, naturally. Tonight the moon is like a burning nectarine rising from the horizon.
After a late start yesterday, waking up to the likes of Six60 and Katchafire, and a breakfast of scrambled eggs, we sailed past Gisborne and up towards the East Cape. The sea was still fairly lively, and the bitter south wind blew so we were able to sail at a fair speed. The boys were much better after a night’s sleep. We all settled on deck, Dani engrossed in her journal, while Luca, Simon, Fabian and I discussed such things as the pronunciation of the German ‘Z’, and I learnt things like, “Wie spät ist es?” and “Das Boot ist am Ozean.”
Kyle opened a packet of dry ramen (instant noodles) and started breaking it apart and crunching on it, to which Luca’s gaze was transfixed. Shortly after, Luca had a packet of ramen and was emptying the sachets of flavouring over the raw slab, lamenting at what a good idea it is!
We anchored at Tolaga Bay around 6:30pm and got the BBQ fired up. A beer by sunset and steaks on the barbie, Tolaga Bay pier silhouetted in the silver sunlight.
It was a rougher night than the last, but it’s something to get used to, as we’ll be sailing through tonight. This morning we arose early, everything stiff and aching, but 5 minutes on deck, calmer waters, cuppa tea in hand and the smell of bacon coming up from below, and everything felt bliss again. The occasional dolphin or albatross passes by, but mostly there’s just shimmering ripples and sunshine.
We made our way around the East Cape by mid-afternoon today, sailing between the lighthouse and the island. It looked pretty incredible from the sea, with dusky layers of landscape framing the skyline.
The engine’s sprung an oil leak, so we’ve been plain sailing while Finn fixes it. As we passed the East Cape lighthouse the wind died completely so the boat was just sitting, slowly turning with the current. Fabian jumped on the ropes, pulling the Jib sail round to find the wind. He made some difference, but for the first 10 minutes we were just going round in circles with Luca yelling, “Turn right! Turn right!” Eventually, Finn’s head popped up and directed Fabian, telling him to sail straight out east, or the wind would make us stall if we tried to sail directly into it, and soon enough, Fabian was sailing successfully!
Sailing by Moonlight
It’s been a long night with broken sleep. Finn and Kyle have been taking watch, swapping every 2 and half hours, while the bright moon lights up the ocean and the Southern Cross shines above. I’d be lying if I said it’s a tranquil experience – with music playing all night, waves slapping the boat about; sails flapping and banging and the motor roaring away down below. None the less, we’re growing accustomed to the rolling and roaring and sleep comes in dazed installments.
We passed White Island at sunrise; a smoky lump on the horizon to the west, and we continue to sail N.W, straight to Great Barrier Island. We hope to reach there around 11pm tonight and make berth. It is warmer today, and we are 50 miles from land, completely surrounded by blue sea.
We have anchored at Red Mercury Island, just off the Coromandel Peninsula. Like refugees, out at sea, sleeping on benches and in corners like human Jenga. All our stuff is drenched as there is a crack in the hatch in the front of the boat – right above our bunk. But it’s an excuse to get the guitar out of its damp case. As the sun set, leaving scuds of brilliant red on the ‘Eye of Sauron’ horizon, we saw a couple of whales spraying up jets of water from their blowholes in the distance. Hopefully tonight we’ll hear some Morepork and Kiwi birds. A Morepork was flying around as we weighed anchor, and shortly after, something flew into the side of the boat in the darkness, letting out a terrible cry as it thudded! I hope it wasn’t the Morepork.
At night, just before bed, Kyle gets his best epiphanies. Cracking open another beer after a round of cards, we laugh, amused by his ramblings, half agreeing, if only we knew what he was talking about! Perhaps it’s just the remarks of a smoking capsicum.
Day 5 of sailing. We left our little cove on Red Mercury Island after sunrise. All groggy and bleary eyed after a wet and noisy night of creaking and leaking hatches. The weather improved heaps and we passed the tip of Coromandel. Finn and Dani counted about 60 various islands we’ve passed, and there are more to come.
Luca has developed quite a love affair with raw ramen. We rarely see him without his hand in an open packet. It might be a serious addiction. I caught Simon playing the harmonica this morning when he thought no one could hear him. He was playing ‘Love Me Do’ by The Beatles, really beautifully. I then learnt that it is a ‘Mundharmonika’ in German, and ‘harmonika’ by itself means accordion.
After 4 or 5 hours of calm ocean bliss, Great Barrier Island is in our sights; its south coast straight ahead. Big green hills rolling up out of the sea, over a red-grey cliff, with little bays and coves everywhere, it’s another Jurassic Park.
We’ve sailed up around the west of the island, past Tryphena and into an inlet with yet more tiny islands. There were rocks of all shapes and sizes; some with big open caverns where the waves eroded the walls; some the shape of turtles. We passed miniature civilizations on the beach – just a wharf and a couple of boats tied up, no one around, and craypots dotted everywhere. Giant jellyfish with pink heads float by, tentacles like unravelling brains.
We turned starboard into a narrow harbour entrance to a hidden bay, sheltered by islands and headland all around. Smokehouse Bay.
This is Finn’s favourite spot in the whole world.The bay has been adapted by sailors over the years, who built a smoke house for their fish. As
time went on, they built a wood-burner powered bath house, complete with bars of soap and
books to read, and even placed a set of mangles and washing lines along the shore for their wives to do their washing! There are homemade swings hanging from the Pohutukawa trees, and benches around a big fire pit. Even a long-drop loo nestles in the hill with a set of instructions on the door to keep it hygienic and natural.
Finn chopped some wood and got the wood-burner going and we took it in turns to shower, while sitting around the fire drinking beers. It was one of the best showers I’ve ever had. Straight from the spring in the cliffs, heated by woodfire, on a beach overlooking the coves of Great Barrier Island, in the middle of the Pacific. As I write, a Kereru has landed in the tree, a big clumsy pigeon, checking us out with his inquisitive sideways glance.
We made way to Port Fitzroy this morning, setting anchor and hanging around until the wharf was free to fill up our water tank. We took the dinghy to shore and the boys got chips and burgers from a little shack in the port called ‘The Hub’. The side of the hut is tied to a Pohutukawa tree and the hatch is on a winch over a branch to open and close it.
We watched as the car ferry from Auckland pulled in after its 6 hour crossing, and three people in an inflatable dinghy driving continuously into the side of it to no avail, presumably trying to push the ferry into port!
A short walk up the hill takes you to the Port Fitzroy shop – a humble little grocery store with fresh produce in baskets that doubles up as a bottle shop.
We attempted to go on a short walk to a waterfall, but an endless line of felled trees blocked the path. After climbing over a few of them – most of the guys barefoot – we decided to turn back. There were silver ferns and Koru and skeletal leaves all over the path.
We filled the boat’s tanks with fresh water, got some groceries, and then motored down to the estuary to a bay filled with cockles. Putting on our stubbies, we climbed into the dinghy (or falling off it and getting wet in Fabian’s case) and went ashore. Up to our knees and elbows in the sea, foraging in the wet sand under water and picking out handfuls of cockles, we collected heaps in a big bucket of seawater to keep them fresh. We brought them back to the boat, cooked them in a big pot, and ate them on the deck, dipping them in vinegar and water. They were surprisingly flavoursome, even without seasoning.
We’ve anchored on the inside coast of Kaikoura Island, where mussel farms litter the sea, and we spent the afternoon fishing beneath a double rainbow, arcing across the bay with both ends dipped in the sea. We were spoilt with the amount of fish; it was actually easy, and we threw at least half of them back in. I caught two Snapper; the first was young, so we threw him back, but the second was a biggun. It had swallowed the hook good and proper, but after a few minutes of easing it out, Finn stabbed it quickly in the head and added it to the bucket.
We ended up with 5 Snapper and 1 Trevally, which Fabian gutted and scaled.
He diced up about a third of the fish, marinating it raw in lemon and chilli, and then wrapped the pieces in spinach leaves for a sashimi entrée. The raw fish was so fresh it didn’t even taste like fish. Next he prepared pan-seared Snapper and Trevally with veggies and rice, which was delicious.
Bath on the Beach
The weather had been on and off all morning, so our original plan to go on a hike was sabotaged. But Finn had gotten up early and caught a Kowhai fish, so after a quick stop at Port Fitzroy, we made way back to Smokehouse Bay. Fabian made some bread dough, which he put in the smokehouse to bake, and we still had some cockles left over, which we boiled in sugar water and smoked in the smokehouse. Finn basted his Kowhai in chilli, lime and brown sugar and smoked that too. The cockles were sweet and firm; the kowhai was rich and tender, it was all gone within seconds!
Kyle washed the teatowels with the mangle and hung them out to dry, and we whiled away the hours talking and sheltering from the rain showers. Simon had the urge to run into the sea, so we turned the taps on in the outside bath tub, and we ran splashing into the water. The water was around 17/18˚c, and almost felt warmer than the air. We swam around for a bit, and when we got out, the bath was hot and ready, so Simon, Fabian and I got into the hot water and soaked. Sharing a bath on the beach, surrounded by flax, quite an odd but delightful thing!
Later we cooked some beef steaks on the fire, and took the bread out of the smokehouse. The bread had cooked well, but let me tell you, it tasted like fire! Soon, an older couple arrived and we sat nattering to one another while they took turns to shower.
After the feed, Finn and Fabian took the dinghy and a battered surfboard they found washed up on the beach, and attempted to wakeboard. After 3 attempts of face-planting the sea, Fabian had it, slowly skimming around the bay, low in the water and passing the on-looking yachts so slowly it was comical. Next, Finn tried, but Fabian kept driving the dinghy round in circles, so they gave up and Finn had a bath. I found a copper teapot and made tea on the fire, but Finn had run out of hot water, so we ended up marinating him in the tea. He got out and joined us by the fire before things got too close to Lord of the Flies!
Some of the flax leaves at Smokehouse Bay have been plaited traditionally, and I tried to mimic the patterns. Flax were anciently used for weaving bags for hunting and gathering, and their strong fibres mean they are good for ropes. We sat around the fire, sipping tea and making jokes until the cold nestled in. We washed our utensils, tidied up, collected our washing and went back to the boat, where Finn cooked mini cheeseburgers and the guys played cards until they got sleepy.
The night was noisy – the anchor seemed to be trying to break free, and the tarpaulin we’d used to stop the rain coming in the hatch was flapping and knocking, but eventually, sleep came.
It was another late morning. After breakfast, we went to Bush’s Beach, where we took the dinghy to shore to go hiking. Finn stayed on board to do some maintenance, while the rest of us went to explore. Pulling up onto the little bay, we put on our hiking shoes and then realised the entrance to the track was blocked off by a red mesh fence and a sign saying, “WARNING – TRACK CLOSED”. We’d come this far, so we mutually agreed to jump the fence and see how far we could get.
There were a few landslips as the track went up, through typical rainforest, silver ferns lining the path, and a river rushing down the gorge. We crossed the first two swing bridges, and came to another red fence. Hopping this one too, we came to where a bridge should be. But it was gone, washed away down the river. So we climbed down and crossed the river by the rocks.
On the other side, the path was demolished by a landslide, which we climbed until we were reunited with the path again. Eventually, we came to another bridge point with no bridge. Luckily the river was low, so again, we crossed it by foot pretty easily. Climbing higher and higher into the bush, the path suddenly disappeared off a sheer drop. A landslip had completely taken the path this time, and there was no way around without risking our lives, so we turned back.
Simon and Dani made jokes, Kyle sang and yodelled while Luca snacked on ramen, and we detoured to a little pool in the river, where tiny waterfalls poured from. We all climbed a fallen tree that bridged over the pool, and Kyle jumped in after a ‘waterfall by the waterfall’. We hiked back down to the beach and went back to the boat.
This evening, Finn caught a baby Snapper in a Kaikoura Island cove, which we’re eating raw with soy sauce and wasabi.
Party at Smokehouse Bay
Around 7:30 am. The clouds cast a dull, grey coldness over the bay. Shorts and jumpers on, we all hop into the dinghy. Time to go cockling.
We foraged for some time until our bucket was brimming with cockles, Kyle humming ‘Silver bells & cockle shells’ all the while. A huge stingray lingered in the bay; a dark shadow darting about in the shallows.
Back to the boat with our loot, and we motored over to the mussel farm, where Finn fished. A young local boy was free diving from another boat, so Finn gave him $10 to dive down and get a bag of mussels. The kid brought an enormous bag up, and Kyle and Finn between them caught 7 Snapper! Now, with our seafood feast, we are heading back to Smokehouse Bay to prepare.
Chopping trees, starting the fires and getting the food ready; our hunting, gathering mission is well on its way to a party. Dani is quite the wood-chopper, with Luca helping with the kindling, and Fabian and Simon are washing and cracking the mussels ready to smoke. Fabian has filleted the Snapper, and I basted them in brown sugar, chilli and lime – Finn style. They’re also saving the egg sacks to try and make smoked caviar, which we have to guard from sneaky thieving seagulls.
With all the cooking underway, we take it in turns to shower, and gradually the other boaties come ashore. There’s Captain Bill and the golden oldies from The Caramba, who’ve been coming here for 30/40 years and are so proud to have a new generation following in their footsteps. Then there is Geoff from Plymouth; a little mole-like man with round glasses and a proper Plymouth accent. Him and his wife sail a lovely little green yacht, which he has kitted out for their every need. Then there are the youngsters, Grace, Phillip, Sam and Brad from Christchurch and Hamilton, and their parents, all aboard The Shasa; a big fancy power boat. Phillip’s dad, Mark, is extremely kind – he brought us a crate of beer for going to the trouble of fishing and cooking.
We’ve shared around the cockles, mussels and Snapper, along with crisps donated by the others, and Captain Bill has raised toast after toast for appreciating such a beautiful place. They gave the name ‘Smokehouse’ a whole new meaning inside the bath house, and everyone is more than merry. Dani was forced to have a ‘Western Wash’ (her head dunked in the sea to sober up.) It didn’t work.
The party continued on the boats into the night – steak and beers on The Shasa, and Rum and music on The Dulcinea – sailors all chanting, “I’m on a Boat” by The Lonely Island, until we were so worn out, we crawled into our blankets and fell asleep.
Snorkelling and Scallops
A stunning morning greeted our heavy heads, and we began the day by jumping off the back of the boat into the cool, refreshing sea. Finn cooked egg fried rice with bacon for brunch, which hit the spot, and we shared the last cans of coke, waving as the other boats slowly awoke to enjoy the warm sun.
I steered the boat as we headed over to another bay on the north of Kaikoura Island. The wheel feels heavy, and I can imagine how much hard work it is to steer in real weather and waves.
We anchored up and Finn got his scuba diving gear on, with a tank borrowed from Captain Bill, and went diving for scallops. Luca and Fabian went snorkelling too, while the rest of us were “ground control” – watching for bubbles to make sure Finn was still breathing!
He finally popped his head up, shouting and beckoning, so Kyle jetted over in the dinghy and brought back a huge bucket of scallops. Finn was so excited; he cracked one open right away and ate it raw, trying to persuade us to eat them too. Kyle suggested he’d come up to surface too quickly and the air had gone to his head.
The Fishermen’s Feast
Back in the bay, Captain Bill came over to get his air tank, and sat on the deck with Finn and Fabian, showing them how to properly fillet the
scallops. Fabian then prepared them with curry powder and made spaghetti with onions and herbs – “Great Barrier Bolognese.”
We took the food to Smokehouse Bay, where the old boys had already begun the feast. A few boats from a sailing club had got together with freshly caught Snapper and a washing-up bowl full of batter. They battered and cooked the fish in a cast iron pot hanging over the fire. The folks from The Caramba made a beautiful fish curry with Snapper and Porai they’d caught, and we all shared our feasts, complimenting each other.
One of the old boys explained how the Porai fish was always the one the Maori chief got first pick of, so it’s pretty special. We ate, trying everything, the other boaties being so generous and welcoming, offering us their food for our hungry young German boys! Fabian’s Great Barrier Bolognese went down a treat with everyone.
Full and content, we went back to the boat for an early night, leaving the party to unravel on the beach.
To The City
A gold leaf sunrise at Smokehouse Bay, raindrops decorating the glassy sea, everything washed in a shade of ochre yellow.
The final leg of the journey threw wind and rain at us, Finn and Kyle in all their waterproof gear, sailing hard into the weather while the waves smashed the boat from side to side. Meanwhile below, we played heavy music that seemed fitting to the weather outside. Dani braided bracelets while Simon & Luca drifted in and out of sleep, and Fabian successfully challenged himself to build a house of cards. The boys outside saw blue sharks and epic cloud-drifted scenes, washed with rain.
We all stood out on deck approaching Auckland, the grey city spiking the low cloud. Rain soaked us as we slowly came into civilization, cranes working fast to load cargo onto enormous ships; catamarans zooming back and forth, carrying passengers across the water; bank names labelling the skyline, and the sky city tower barely visible in the cloud. We berthed at the marina, and with feet back on (slightly damp) land, it was to The Swashbucklers Inn for a welcome pint.