Sunday, March 31, 2013

Stewart Island, Part II

It's famously difficult to photograph rowdy weather from the decks of a sailboat.

It might be easier capture the effects of rowdy weather on the crew.  Here's Alisa, keeping up morale for our two cabin boys on a gray and rolly day.

On this particular day, we were sailing around the south coast of Stewart Island from Adventure Bay to Port Pegasus.

The forecast wasn't particularly bad - SE 25 knots, with a SW 2 meter swell.  But we were wary.  The SE wind was the product of a front that was coming through, and we weren't sure how accurate the forecast models would be right around a front, and whether we could count on the timing of the favorable wind to get to Pegasus.  More than anything, we were just being super-cautious about operating in this new place with the kids.  We knew just how clueless we were about local conditions.

But it turned out to be a fine sail.  Galactic flew.  And Eric didn't get sick.

The entrance to Port Pegasus is somewhere up there!

Ahh, there it is...

Port Pegasus turned out to be a remarkable spot, though the weather was pretty ordinary for our entire stay.

Our first anchorage there also turned out to be the first place on Stewart where we could find neither walking track nor beach.  This development temporarily drained the team morale.

Inclement weather kept us boat-bound for much of the time.

And when we did venture out we dressed for the worst.

Port Pegasus is also the place where we tied Galactic into the shore for the second and third times ever. You'll remember that the second time didn't go so well.  But the third time was much better - a nice little cove, with perfect cover from a forecast for west 40 knots, a colony of pied shags in the trees above, and wide vistas across the bow.

We continued to get ashore whenever it seemed like a good idea.

The boys love the freedom of being off the boat, where there are so many rules about what they can do.

But even shore has its hazards.  How, for instance, do you deal with a two-year-old who is determined to wade into the cold water, no matter how miserable he'll be when he eventually tops his boots?

You can try giving him a good talking-to.  But of course that won't work - he's two!

So the kid keeps doing whatever he wants, and you're left with a concerned parent face.

I love this picture because it captures the uncertainty and concern that we were feeling during this time.  Every night we were checking the weather for going down to the Aucklands, and every night the forecast still wasn't as good as we wanted.  But looking at the weather for a big crossing too many times has the psychological effect of being camped for too many days on the glacier beneath a big mountain that you mean to climb.  The longer you look at it, the bigger it gets, and eventually the idea of actually climbing the thing seems preposterous.

This whole time in Port Pegasus, we were distracted by the next trip - both by the question of whether it was a good idea, and by the question of whether we'd be able to squeeze it into the waning season.  For a while it looked like we'd never get the weather window we needed.

One of the attractions of the wide-open anchorage in the photos above is that it gave good access to tracks up the fantastic little granite peaks above Pegasus.  But we never got to walk those tracks, as the forecast suddenly suggested the possibility of good sailing conditions to get to the Aucklands in four or five days.  We still had to complete the formalities for visiting the New Zealand subantarctic in Bluff, and the various considerations of wind, tide, and weekend (when no formalities are begun or completed) meant that if we wanted to grab this chance to get south we'd have to leave Pegasus quick-like.

Which we did.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Stewart Island, Part I

A little orientation to begin with - Stewart Island is that large island just south of the South Island of New Zealand.  It's only 20 miles or so from Bluff, and so was a very convenient place to busy ourselves while we were waiting for weather to get down to the Auckland Islands.

We showed up knowing NOTHING about the place.  Really, the scale of our ignorance is a bit embarrassing to recall.  In Hobart we had skipped buying the references that we usually get before visiting a new place, figuring that we could get whatever natural history books, cruising guides and field guides we might need once we got to Bluff.

Those of you who have been to Bluff will understand that the joke was on us.  So we just sailed down to Stewart Island, as much to escape Bluff as anything else (more on that another time), and chucked out the pick in the first likely-looking cove.

When we went ashore we were delighted to find the place criss-crossed with walking tracks that were very kid-appropriate.

So finding a new track to walk became a primary focus of each day.

As we got farther south the tracks became less kid-appropriate.

Eventually we gave up on the tracks and resorted to the beach.

We were seeing all kinds of native birds.  Our only reference for identifying them was "New Zealand Birds", by M.F. Soper (copyright 1972), a collection of bird photos and natural history notes, and very definitely not a field guide, which we had found second hand at the coffee shop in Bluff.  But it was at least enough to tell us this was a tomtit.

I've counted it up on one hand - during our whole stay on Stewart, I spoke with four Kiwis (not counting Meri of Bluff Fisherman's Radio, who we checked in with every night).  One of the four was the skipper of the fishing boat in the background below, who came alongside for a chat before picking up his mooring for the night, and threw a bag of fresh blue cod fillets across to us.

We didn't have much luck feeding ourselves through our own fishing efforts.

Though everybody tried.

Meanwhile the days just drifted by...

...though the forecast for sailing down to the Aucklands was never quite to our liking.

Eventually we had been around Stewart long enough that it was time to think about going to Port Pegasus, a big natural harbor at the southwest corner of the island.  Getting there required sticking our nose out on the south coast of the island during some pretty unsettled weather.  It took a bit to work up the courage to do that ("Sailing along the south coast of Stewart Island as a front is coming through - is this something I should be doing with my kids?"), though we were eventually very glad we made the effort.

More on that soon.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


Well, it might not be a secret - I'm not really the most internet-oriented person.  Hopefully the Hector's video will play now - I'm able to view it even when I'm signed out of the blog.

Let me know if there are still problems!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


One of the big tourist draws at Akaroa is the population of Hector's dolphins that are habituated to interacting with people.  We got to chatting with a skipper of one of the local tour boats and he made it sound so easy to find dolphins and go for a swim with them that we decided to give it a try...

We had our team of crack divers to assist.

And, well, it turned out to be pretty straightforward.  We just stopped the boat after at the mouth of Akaroa Harbour and the dolphins came to us.  A few things to notice about the video - first of all, there are Elias' great exclamations of "this is AMAZING!  this is AMAZing" in the background.  Then you should also note that the whole family is in the water at one point, with Galactic left to herself.  Definitely the first time we've done that!

These round, undercut dorsal fins are diagnostic for Hector's.

Hector's are endemic to New Zealand, and not particularly numerous.  They're a small dolphin and, as you can see, quite inquisitive and playful.  A day spent going out to see them was just the ticket for a team that has been keeping pretty busy with goal-oriented travel lately.  It was a joy to see how much pleasure the boys took from the experience.

The next day we sailed from Akaroa to Lyttelton, under spinnaker almost the whole way.  We were accompanied by Hector's for much of the day.  They spent a lot of time bow riding on our towed dinghy, of all things - we've never seen that before.

They were a real highlight from our time on the South Island so far.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Port Sickness, And the Antidote

This happy fellow is just finishing the sail from the Auckland Islands to Akaroa - that's the coast of the Banks Peninsula in the background, with the sun setting just as we're about to enter the harbor.  We're just completing a mostly gentle 500 mile sail, a great finish to our adventure of visiting the subantarctic.

But, perhaps not surprisingly, our first day in Akaroa was a huge letdown.  It might have been something about trying to get a few practicalities accomplished in the very impractical environment of a tourist town that we were suddenly sharing with a cruise ship's worth of fellow-travelers.  It might have had something to do with the constant provocations of sharing life in a small space with a two-year-old.  It might have been tangentially connected to the fact that we're suddenly in a state where neither head on board is functioning.  And it very likely had something to do with the strain of keeping boat and family safe during our month in southernmost New Zealand, and the sudden switch to another set of concerns once we reached port, the concerns of my parallel life as family provider and biologist with a research career to nurture.  But for whatever reason, my mood yesterday was beyond (below?) toxic.

Readers of South From Alaska will know that I am a long-term sufferer of port sickness.  And the best antidote, I think, is to remember all the good stuff that we're earning via the endless trouble of boat life.

Things like, f'r instance, this school assignment that Elias wrote last week:

Alisa had just left Elias to work independently on this bit of school work while she was looking after Eric.  And Elias, on his own, came up with this idea for things he would not like to live without:

"Water and food and love from my family.  And I would not like to live without fishing hooks to catch fish."

That's a pretty good antidote for any lingering questions of whether all the trouble of running family life on a traveling boat is worth it.  And Enderby Island was a pretty good antidote as well...

Enderby is the northernmost island in the Aucklands Archipelago.  There's a clean-bottomed anchorage, which Galactic is anchored in above, and a beach that the strange and rare New Zealand sea lion breeds on, and a few huts (at the end of the beach in the photo above), now vacant, that are inhabited by sea lion biologists at the height of summer.

And there is a boardwalk taking you across the island that provides both perfect footing for two-year-olds and interesting things to pick up like albatross beaks.

The boardwalk goes right past royal albatross nests.

 Getting this close to a nesting albatross made for a very remarkable moment, for us and for the boys.

And this shrub habitat is shared by yellow-eyed penguins.

And then there's the beach - a perfect little hotspot for marine wildlife needing to come ashore to breed.

Pictures don't convey how much was going on at the beach.  Sea lions occasionally came charging down from the hills above, giant petrels and Antarctic skuas and penguins and pipits and white-fronted terns were constantly doing their thing.

Giant petrels are wary, and tough to photograph.

Elias' portrait of his mom.

And sailing back to a more protected anchorage at the end of the day.

Enderby is very different from the place it was before sealers and farmers and long-liners showed up in this part of the world, and our visit was after the peak season for seeing wildlife.  Nonetheless, we found it to be pretty jaw-dropping.  So different from anything we're used to, and, in spite of those changes, so vital, it did a very good job of standing in as the archetype of a Southern Ocean island, an oasis of terrestrial life in the vastness of this cold grey sea that stretches around the pole and meets itself again.

Not a bad thing to remember when you're having an off day in port.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Anchor Down

Just a quick note to say that we've dropped the hook in Akaroa Harbour, ending the 500 mile trip from the Aucklands. We were surprised to see that the south side of the Banks Peninsula is very reminiscent of the Big Sur coast line.

And now it's time for hot showers, a celebratory drink, and uninterrupted sleep.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Victory Drinks Delayed

I confess to a beer at lunch today, justified on grounds of its palliative action on a stomach that was displaying vague symptoms of upset. It was just the thing.

Victory drinks at the end of our passage from the Auckland Islands, though, will have to be delayed. We have decided to truck right on by our original destination of Dunedin, and are now entering the third night of the passage, bound for Akaroa, the Banks Peninsula, and Christchurch.

This decision to keep going is partly motivated by our suspicion of the traps that land lays for sailors. Our several weeks of isolation in some of the more out-of-the-way parts of En Zed means that we have a list of practicalities to take care of, and wherever we stop it will likely be for a while. So rather than have a longish stop in Dunedin, and then another in Christchurch, we have decided to just make it north while we have the opportunity. So we passed by the mountainous coast around Dunedin today at sunset, wondering who we might have met had we gone there, and what it might have been like.

The other motivation to keep heading north is, not surprisingly, the good traveling conditions that we are enjoying. The trip up from the Aucklands was raucous for the first eight hours or so, with plenty of swell on our port quarter and a fleet of massive trawlers to dodge. The next day, though, was sublime - the sea flat, the wind just strong enough to move us at seven knots, sunshine. The pelagic birds swooped everywhere around us, the boys played well together. That day, the roaring forties whispered. And though the forecast had led me to expect that we would lose the wind halfway to the South Island, it stayed with us, and the engine stayed off all the way until we had passed Nugget Pt., the eastern boundary of Foveaux Strait, that troublesome body of water at the southern end of New Zealand proper.

Now that the wind finally has left us, I am betting that since everything seems ok with the engine it will be game to get us through the twenty-four hours of no wind that is forecast to lie between us and Akaroa. The sun has just set behind the mountains of the South Island, the moon is half-full, and the unbelievable lights of a squid boat are beaming off the clouds on the horizon behind us. With any luck we'll just nick into Akaroa before nightfall tomorrow.

I'm ready to take a walk.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Lighting Out

Today was everything that we could ask from the weather down here. The skies were blue, the clouds fluffy and up in the sky where they belong, rather than at mast height, and the wind was a model of restraint. Penguins porpoised in the sunshine.

The day was so good that the boys even played nicely together. And with all the open vistas around us, and a bit of a walk up a hill for a view, and the bracing cold air on my face, I started to recall the magic of higher-latitude places. At their best, they're so clean, and elemental, and offer such a quality of solitude, that they can leave you feeling that everything really is all right with the world, and that you are in exactly the right place in it. I suppose I've had that feeling much more strongly in Alaska, where I know enough of what is going on to feel at home, and at ease, in really spectacular settings. In a place like the Aucklands, where we are such outsiders, and only tentatively feeling our way into things, it's hard to let your guard down long enough to start thinking about the more transcendent side of wild places. But today I did get the shade of the idea.

In a more concrete vein, the forecast is looking as good as we could hope for over the next few days, and we are planning on lighting out tomorrow, bound north to the South Island of New Zealand. Our ambition is to get all the way to Dunedin, the first port as you head up the east coast, and to leave all the weather uncertainty of the bottom end of En Zed behind...

More soon!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

(no subject)

Alisa, a week or two ago, after a rough day on the boat: "I still don't want to go back to living in a house just yet. You can't beat this, the way we're with the boys all day."

Elias to Eric, unaware that Alisa was listening: "Why did we come to New Zealand, just so I could freeze my butt off?"

Alisa to me, last night: "I think this is the furthest south for us."

"Not even Patagonia?" I asked.

How can a head bolt be geysering oil? (I'm aware that this might be a question that I don't want to know the answer to.) Luckily, perhaps, this particular bolt has an extra-deep nut on it, so I could thread a bolt into the top of the nut and plug the leaking oil. Unfortunately, though, while I had several bolts the right diameter, they all had the wrong threads. So I cut the threads off the pin to a galvanized shackle, put new threads on the pin with a die, and screwed the thing into our engine with some silicon gasket smeared on the threads. Very agricultural, as they say in Australia, but with luck it will get us where we need to go.

Long-time readers will know that I hate to write about engine problems because 1) they're boring and 2) we aspire to be the sort of got-their-act-together sailors who don't have chronic problems in key equipment resurfacing in very remote places. But that's what's up with us right now.

Meanwhile, we are loving the Aucklands: Albatross chicks-of-the-year peeking out from beneath their placid parents, the same chicks that will sit in their nests all through the winter and fledge next summer. Penguins porpoising around in tide rips. Parakeets flushing up from the grass in front of you. No worries about whether the best part of the anchorage will be taken when you get there.

The Auckland Islands are obviously the sort of place that would reward a stay of months. But the season is near its end and we have far to go. So we'll be counting ourselves lucky to get just a taste...

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Southern Stars

It's a starry night in the Aucklands, with no moon.

Alisa and I met when we were living in Fairbanks, Alaska, at 64° North, where the northern lights are a regular part of life during the dark months. But neither of us have ever seen the aurora australis, and we're aware that this might be a chance.

We also got to see the Auckland Islands themselves this afternoon, as the driving mist lifted and gave us our first clear view about the place since we arrived, a day and a half before. The islands at this end of the archipelago are low, and heavily forested near the shore. If there's a little mist they could be islands in the Bering Sea, but when the view clears they suddenly look quite different.

This morning we motored a few miles across Port Ross, to the premier wildlife anchorage at Enderby Island. We anchored easily enough, but I couldn't get excited about the conditions for going ashore. Getting to these islands, and operating here, require us to relax our standards for what constitutes reasonable conditions for doing things, and it may just be that the passage and our first day in the Aucklands had made me tired of relaxed standards. So we stayed on board. Just as well, as the tide came up and let the swell in through the two passes to the southwest of us and soon the waves were washing far up the beach - it wouldn't have been a time to try to get back to the boat in the inflatable.

We did get ashore at Enderby on our first day here, one adult and one child going at a time to meet our permit's requirement that someone always be on board the mothership. What a place to end the passage. The bay is wide, with low hills above the beach to make a tableaux for the wildlife wandering around. New Zealand sea lions breed only in the Aucklands, and though most of them are gone from the beach for the season, a pair of males faced off in the water and made a perfunctory display of aggression for our benefit. New Zealand sea lions are apparently known for wandering far from the water, and every now and then an individual would come lumbering down from the hills, with a shambling gait just a little like a bear's. And there were skuas on the beach that refused to move aside when approached by curious children, and yellow-eyed penguins looking grumpy as they molted, surrounded by rings of feathers, and GIANT PETRELS, which breed here and are about the place in pretty good numbers. I have a soft spot for prehistoric-seeming animals (the dinosaur call of yellow-tailed black cockatoos makes them my favorite Australian bird), and giant petrels look very much like a rough draft for a seabird, something that was put together long long ago and never improved upon much.

So after not getting ashore today we motored through gale-force winds back to the lovely sheltered anchorage at Erebus Cove, where there was a settlement of 300 people for the briefest time 160 years ago, and where now the continuous thickets of rata trees look from the water like they have been undisturbed since the dawn of time. And it was here at Erebus that Alisa discovered oil gurgling out from around one of the head bolts on the engine. I was aware that oil had started leaking from it during the passage down here from Bluff, but I had never watched it while the engine was running. So now we get to wonder if the whole head gasket is shot, and what else is leaking out of sight. This is a pretty poor place to be wondering about your engine, and we have agreed that in the future we'll have the cover off the main and the halyard on the sail any time that we're motoring between anchorages.

More soon...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


It's all about the south for us, right now.

We're just finishing the second day of our passage down to the Auckland Islands, which are described, by the friend who first gave us the idea of this somewhat ridiculous adventure, as "the most accessible part of the sub-antarctic". Whatever THAT means.

Today, though, was beautiful. Sun hats were worn for a while in the cockpit, and when we shut down the engine a little community of Southern Ocean birds quickly settled around us on the oily swell: royal albatross, Buller's and white-capped mollymawks, various unknown species of petrel and shearwater, and of course cape pigeons. Elias gets a huge kick out of spotting the birds, which of course gives us great pleasure.

Yesterday was a bit more fulsome. We were motoring or motor-sailing into swell and/or light breeze for most of the day. Just after dinner I cut too close to some reefs south of Stewart Island. The tide was pumping against swell over a disturbed and somewhat shoal bottom (30 fathoms instead of 70), and the waves suddenly stacked up in front of us, and came over the bow one after another.

Eric, already in his bunk for the night, emptied his stomach onto his pillow. We got him into the cockpit and cleaned up, then settled him onto Alisa's lap to fall to sleep. Then Elias came into the cockpit as well, saying that he was too queasy to stay below. I changed course for deeper water and stayed at the nav station to check in with the nightly Bluff Fisherman's Radio schedule. By the time I was finished with that, the boys were asleep and I was green from being below too long.

It was, if my count is accurate, the 579th time since we left home with a 10-month old Elias that I've wondered just exactly what we were up to. Even with the weather quite good, we were struggling, and it seemed that the most reasonable thing was just to turn around. When I started to suggest that possibility, though, Alisa just said, "Well, we're going now." I swear she's twice as tough as me.

So now, 24 hours later, we're nearly there, and (touch wood) well situated to be in a snug anchorage before the next gale blows tomorrow.

More soon.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Getting the Feel

Well, we're back in Bluff, and I'm able to eke out enough internet to put up a quick post.  It's a funny thing about contemporary travel - the internet gives us the independence to take work and life details with us, but it also becomes a terrible constraint, and we find ourselves gravitating to whatever source we can find when we're in an out of the way place.

We're in Bluff to check out with the Department of Conservation for our visit to the sub-antarctic islands (done) and to take care of all the port details of fuel-water-food-oil-laundry-cooking gas (mostly done).  We spent nearly two weeks at Stewart Island, and there are many stories to share from that time.  But for now I'll have to be content with pictures from our two days of sailing along the southeast coast of the island, out to Port Pegasus and back.

Both times we had 25 knot winds and some swell, which make for a fairly rowdy day sail.  These outings were a great way for us to get a bit of a feel for sailing in these waters - what our limits are for comfortable travel, and how to work the conditions to get where we want to go.

And a highlight of both days was the birding - we all got into spotting new pelagic species.

Elias was the first to spot a cape pigeon.

 A sooty (?) shearwater.  Always close to our hearts, as they spend the Austral winter in Alaska.

 Royal albatross.

 Adventure mom!
 Keeping the kids entertained when it's rough is a full-time undertaking.

And a well-earned walk on the beach...

No time for more, I'm afraid.  We're planning on catching the morning tide out of here tomorrow morning, heading south, and I'm not short of things to do today!