New Zealand, At Long Last

When you’re sailing you don’t want to have a deadline.  It’s hard to make the boat go faster, and especially hard to sail it straight into the wind.  And when the weather turns nasty you have to find a sheltered place and wait it out.  But as Tonga drifted out of sight I knew we’d need to get to New Zealand in a hurry so Pam could fly to Boston to sit with Julian through his long convalescence.  We made our way to Minerva Reef in good time, sailing fast on the wind.

Minerva Reef is only three hundred miles south of Tonga, but it’s like another universe.  What happened to the tropical weather?  The air was chilly and the sky a brooding gray as we sailed into the big lagoon.  But what a marvel to behold!  For few people ever get to this place where there is no land, just a submerged coral reef in the shape of a perfect circle, providing protection from waves in the very center of the ocean.  At low tide the hidden reef exposes itself for a moment and one can walk across it to behold the colors of the rainbow encapsulated in the plentiful coral shapes and tide pools.  On a moonlit night you can catch lobsters using a flashlight as they crawl from the pounding surf across the reef to the tranquil lagoon.

Slowly the other boats began to arrive from Tonga.  A low-pressure trough was building north of New Zealand and all the talk was about weather windows.  Each morning we listened to the various radio nets to hear the forecast and make hypothetical plans to sail the eight hundred miles to New Zealand.  The weather chatter from the “Minerva Reef Yacht Club” finally came to a head and we decided that the anchor must come up, ready or not.  We crowded on all sail as Pamela skated through the pass and into the blue Pacific, followed by twelve other boats in a flotilla to the Land of the Long White Cloud.  This was it!  Finally, the long-anticipated, much feared, voyage to New Zealand was on, and no turning back!

Six days later we were still two hundred miles from North Island.  At latitude thirty south, where the frontal systems scallop past in an endless parade, we encountered strong headwinds that forced us to make long tacks far outside the straight rhumb line to Opua.  Meanwhile Pam was suffering a slow death of a thousand cuts.  She yearned to be with her baby, now home from the hospital and in intense pain.  Aunt Kay had flown from North Carolina to assist Julian from the hospital, spending a week in his college room to watch over him day and night, and now Yvonne was doing the same, having flown from California to relieve Aunt Kay.  Pam needed to get there by November 10, yet on November 7 we were still ploughing our way through big seas and headwinds, angling slowly toward the New Zealand coast.  Finally we couldn’t take the long tacks any longer.  We fired up the engine and motored headlong into the pounding seas, with Pamela’s bow rocking and rolling like a pony on a merry-go-round, groaning with each heavy swell, while the contents of the food lockers banged loudly and reverberated throughout the saloon.

About fifty miles off the coast the seas began to lose their restless energy, and on day eight we were motoring in a flat calm in the lee of the island.  “Land ho!” I bellowed as North Cape came into view, framed by a bright orange sunset.  Could this really be New Zealand?  Had we actually sailed all the way to New Zealand from San Francisco?  We had told everyone that this was our plan, but had we actually accomplished it?  I shook the mist from my head and tried hard to believe it.  A school of dolphins came hurtling and spinning, similar to the times when we were approaching the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, and Tahiti.  How sweetly these beautiful mammals come to say hello to the weary sailor!  With their daring leaps and grinning faces they are the perfect welcoming committee.  They cavorted in Pamela’s bow wave for several minutes, then rushed off to look for the next sailor.

I couldn’t imagine better conditions for our approach into the Bay of Islands.  The moon rose full and pregnant with the setting of the sun and the sea became as smooth as soup.  The Tikitiki rocks were visible in the soft moonlight.

The chart plotter was of little use, however, for I’d failed to purchase the electronic chart showing New Zealand—what as I thinking, was I planning to wing it into the unfamiliar bay in the dead of night?  Without a chart showing aids to navigation such as lights or channel markers I would have to observe and figure it out.  A light flashing white every six seconds was visible off the Russell headlands and soon the channel markers toward Paihia began to wink hello.  I went below for a moment to check my guidebook and came up on deck just in time to throw the wheel hard to starboard to prevent T-boning the green channel marker in the very center of the bay.  We threaded our way down the estuary and between the unlit moored boats in Opua harbor and tied up alongside the quarantine dock at 04:00.  With a smile of satisfaction I gave Pam a high-five and a sloppy kiss, then lay down on the port settee in my salty clothes and fell into a deep slumber.

Robyn and Mark from Mintaka were there to greet us when we cleared customs and immigration the next morning.  What a homecoming!  They knew Pam would need transportation to the airport at Kerikeri so they rented a car for us.  As we drove through the verdant green countryside I discovered all the places I have ever lived:  the forested hills of North Carolina; the San Francisco peninsula where the winter rains turn the golden hills into ripe grasslands; the foothills of the Swiss Alps; the English Midlands.  Around every bend there was another spectacular view of a headland surrounded by green water in the island-studded bay.

I kissed Pam and we said our goodbyes at the airport.  I didn’t know when I’d see her again.  My beautiful sweet pumpkin who had sailed with me across an ocean was going far away from me.

I spent a few days exploring Opua, hiking the hills, biking the trails, and playing music with my buddies as they arrived from Tonga.  I started on my long list of boat projects.

We had planned to have the boys fly to New Zealand for Christmas, but now all our plans were up in the air.  How long would Pam need to stay in Boston?  Would Julian would be able to travel?  I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go back to California as planned.  How I missed Lindsay and Julian!  I hadn’t seen my boys in a year.   Would I have to wait another six months before seeing my beautiful boys?  I couldn’t imagine it.

Would Little Bear still remember me?  I was having dreams about returning to Palo Alto and finding Little Bear completely unaware of who I was.  Where had his master gone for all this time, and who was this new person who called him now with his special whistle?

As a young man I had often suffered from frightening dreams about returning to the farm and finding Sarah tied up, abandoned, and starving to death.  When I returned to the empty farm after the family had split up and each gone their separate ways, I found that the dreams were better than what really happened.  As if a young man’s heart already broken into a million pieces could break down even further.

Seeing the friendly dogs of Opua brought back the memories of Sarah and Little Bear.  I began to ache for home.  Each day I sent email to Pam.  I posted a few upbeat messages on Facebook, then stopped posting.  Passing the Opua post office I decided to write a letter to my Uncle John.

My dear Uncle John has followed my Pacific odyssey, not by viewing my Facebook posts or visiting my blog site, but by reading my hand-written letters.  For Uncle John is in prison and has been there all of his adult life.  Now in his mid-seventies, he knows nothing of the Internet, or email, or text messaging.  I send him two-page letters from Mexico, the Marquesas, and Tonga, and he writes back with six pages in a beautiful cursive hand describing to me what is going on in the world at large.  I don’t know the details of why he’s in prison.  That does not matter anymore.  We speak together of more important things.  In his letters he calls me “Chipper”, a nickname I had when I was four years old and one that only Uncle John would remember.

There was a story from Dad about Uncle John that I’ll never forget.  Dad had just turned sixteen, old enough to drive, and he was driving the family car to the west coast of Florida, taking John to a detention center away from the family.  John had been pilfering, then stealing, and one thing had led to another, and the decision had been made to move John away.  Dad was proud to be driving, yet ashamed to be taking his younger brother away from home to a place where he would forever remain beyond the love of his family.

My first letter to Uncle John was wondrously expressed yet never mailed.  I was high over Switzerland, and with the wine from Mont Sur Rolle stirring the rusted strings of my heart I began to put my thoughts into words for my forgotten uncle.  The paragraphs came in coughs, confused, beginning then ending without any apparent direction, struggling to form into cohesion.  The folded paper found its way into my inner brief case pocket, discovered several years later in the confusion of yet another business trip to Japan or China, seemingly random in its re-discovery, out of its moment, before its proper time.

What I would give to find that letter again.

Pam sent word about a change of plan.  Julian would not be well enough to come to New Zealand.  She and he would fly to California in a couple of weeks, then Lindsay would come down from Tacoma to meet them.  I would fly to San Francisco in time to meet my family for Christmas!  I would play guitar with Lindsay and Julian and have long talks with them late into the evening, about growing up, about life, and about sailing across oceans.

And Little Bear!  I would be able to take Little Bear on long walks to the Arastradero Preserve, let him swim in the pond, and scratch behind his fuzzy ears.

Since we wouldn’t be sailing in the Bay of Islands for Christmas I decided to take the boat down to Whangarei.  I planned to spend a week of solitude in the islands around Opua, then sail around Cape Brett and back out into the Pacific, past the magnificent cliffs of places like Whangamumu, Whangaruru, and Tutukaka.  As much as I was looking forward to solitude in the Bay of Islands, I was apprehensive about the weather, for the low-pressure troughs came marching through with regularity bringing frequent rain and gusts up to forty knots.

I sent a despondent email to Pam:

Hi my beautiful sweet pumpkin, I was looking through my photos today and nearly cried when I saw a picture of you.  I wish things were better for you in Boston.  I can imagine you’re having a difficult time there with nothing fun to do, and lousy weather to boot.

Some good news—the shepherd’s pie is finally gone.  I found it was actually edible if you add coconut cream.

I’ll be casting off my lines in an hour or so and heading out to the islands.  I’ll have email access, so we can continue to write to each other every day.

Are you coming home today?

It was time to slip my lines once more and head out into the Bay of Islands, where Lieutenant James Cook, before he was Captain Cook, once anchored in a lee cove of Motuarohia Island, climbed to the top of the hill, and counted one hundred forty-four islands, giving the beautiful seascape its modern name.  I filled my backpack with wine and lamb chops, hoisted the dinghy up on the davits, and pushed Pamela’s bow away from the breakwater.  What exhilaration to be sailing once more!

I sailed to Motuarohia Island and dropped anchor, went below to drink all the wine, and woke up with a splitting headache.  I needed to write but I didn’t have the energy or the inspiration.  I was feeling lonesome and homesick.  I strummed my guitar a while and tried to meditate.  The island outside was beautiful but the wind was up and the water was choppy.  I stayed in the cabin and bundled up in warm clothes.

I posted another email to Pam.  She was having a rough time with Julian in Boston, trying hard to adjust to the cold weather—for we had spent the past fourteen months in the tropics—and whiling away the time in his college room, patiently enduring his wide mood swings as his painkillers wore off every few hours.

Hi pumpkin, let me tell you what I had for lunch.  I think you’ll want to come back and have some of this with me:

  • half pot of salt water that rags are soaking in because I’m too damn lazy to draw a fresh pail from over the side
  • one box of stale tortellini with something mysterious inside
  • some old cheese from Tonga I found floating in refrigerator water
  • one can of sweetened, condensed milk

You boil the tortellini in the salt water for about an hour to soften them up.  Then you pour out the extra water into a cup to make tea later, then add the cheese and the condensed milk.  It’s like eating a pair of salty socks with sugar on top.

Tonight I think I’ll fast.

Got up and did some yoga and meditation, then played guitar.  I’m going ashore to hike up the trail to the overlook.  Been here three days and haven’t gone ashore yet, just moping around.  It’s starting to blow hard so I’ll probably get wet and cold in the attempt.

We’re going to need a new camera.  The Canon doesn’t grip so well when you’re taking a video, and it fell into the water.  I know, I should have had the strap around my neck, but how can I remember this if you’re not here to warn me?  I dove in to get it; yes, dove in with all my clothes on into the cold, black New Zealand water.  I snagged it before it sank and managed to recover the memory card, but I’m afraid the camera is ruined.  We’re going to need a new one. 

Four weeks until California, what are we going to do in the meantime?  I’m not sure I can sit here on my butt for four weeks, but I’ll try.

I love you and miss you.  Are you coming home today?

Finally I got up and decided it was time to stop sulking and go ashore.  The gray windy morning had turned into a warm, sunny afternoon.  On the beach I discovered a million oysters clinging to the rocks of a tide pool.  The first one I touched opened up and yielded a perfect oyster, tasty and succulent.  The beach was full of shells and pebbles and felt good on my naked feet.  I hadn’t gone barefoot since Tonga!

Beyond the beach was a meadow of tall green grass.  A swath had been mowed to make a soft path.  I stepped gingerly onto the fresh lawn, fearful of stickers, and then eased up as I felt the softness below my feet.  How good it felt!  It reminded me of the fresh grass of the Great Smoky Mountains, always soft underfoot.  The trail led past the meadow and up a hill thickly wooded in tall pines.  I continued to walk barefoot up the wooded slope, for the ground below was soft and even, with no stickers, no garbage, just a pristine carpet for my soft feet.

At the top of the hill was a wooden bench and a lookout.  The view was magnificent!  I could see the Tikitiki rocks about five miles away marking the entrance to the large bay.  Toward Cape Brett were scores of islands, some low-lying, some tall, and all with dramatic rocky coastlines punctuated with soft sandy beaches.  There were very few traces of modern civilization, no buildings, phone lines, or towers.  The occasional white sail stood breathless in the blue expanse.  An old schooner sailed before the breeze, while below me the blue waters churned beneath the steep cliff.

I sat on the bench and pondered.  In the small bay below me Pamela rested at her anchor in the soft afternoon breeze.  From my lookout I could see far out into the Pacific Ocean.  I imagined the distance I had sailed to get to this place, over ten thousand nautical miles.  I could see California a hemisphere away.  I saw Little Bear with his fuzzy ears in Palo Alto, Lindsay impoverished in Tacoma, and Pam and Julian shivering in Boston.

A sea bird sang in my ear while the waves pounded the rocks below.  In its cheerful chirrup the bird was speaking to me.  He was speaking in tongues, of all things, reminding me that life is truly wonderful.

Here, now.