The Wellington to Nelson Race

If you are a follower on Facebook, you may have noticed a certain “VM2 Racing” suffix recently being added to the Astrolabe Sailing Facebook page.

Well that is because my friend Victoria Murdoch has recently purchased a new yacht called High Voltage, and she has talked me in to doing the Round North Island two handed race with her in February 2020. More to come on that in later posts…

High Voltage is somewhat akin to a thoroughbred racehorse, in comparison to my boat Wildwood which is more like a ‘My Little Pony’. Since purchasing High Voltage back in the middle of 2018, we have been trying to tame her, and learn what makes her tick. This has inflicted deep wounds in both Vic’s bank account, as well as some of her crew members, with some nasty boat bites, blood on the deck and even an ambulance call out – but they are all another story.

So after the fabulous Waikawa Boating Club annual Lawsons Dry Hills regatta over Christmas time, (where we were out-sailed by our fellow competitors in sometimes challenging conditions), Vic decided to enlist the help of Matt Stetchmann. Owner of Hurricane Rigging, Lyttelton sailor from way back, former OK Dinghy World Champion and he has also been involved in a number of Volvo Ocean race campaigns. Matt aka ‘the boat whisperer’, promised Vic he would come along and sort both us and High Voltage out once and for all!

And we had a race to do – the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club Wellington to Nelson Race – about 120 miles, out of Wellington Harbour, through Cook Strait, around the top of Stephens Island and then South in to Tasman Bay to Nelson.

fullsizeoutput_2368(We were the turquoise coloured line/spot)

A gun crew were assembled, Vic & myself, Matt, his friend Guy, John Little, Chris Hitchings & Dave May. Vic and Chris had delivered High Voltage across Cook Strait from Waikawa the day before and the rest of us flew in on the Friday morning.

It was a glorious day, I’d never seen Cook Strait so flat calm as we flew over. Right on time for the start at 1pm – a light breeze filled in and with Vic at the helm, High Voltage was the first horse – sorry boat, off the blocks and over the start line.

50285501_1685769148190814_4030436244444938240_n.jpgYep that’s us right at the front!

We tacked up the harbour with the other nine boats in the fleet, crisscrossing our way around the ferries, and finally out in to Cook Strait itself.

You will remember in one of my previous posts me talking about what a treacherous and scary stretch of water Cook Strait is.  However today you wouldn’t have believed me. The sun was out, the ocean was flat and with a stunning 10kt breeze up our bum and the spinnaker up, all the crew had to do was keep the sails filled and soak up some rays.

The only thing that was missing was the beer!

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But while this was champagne sailing, there was to be no beer (or champagne, or any other alcohol for that matter) – this was a very serious race, and there was no chit-chat about anything other than the race strategy itself. Sails were changed, positions of the other yachts constantly monitored on the fabulous PredictWind Tracker, and every ounce of concentration was spent on making the boat go fast.

I think it was at this stage that I realised that for all these years I have merely been sailing around the racecourse, and not actually racing…! Where I would have been cracking open a beer or two, enjoying the sunshine and having a debate about Brexit with my fellow crew members, I now realised that all the other boats in the race had been solely thinking about winning! It was a revelation for me. This was sailing on a whole different plane. Eureka!

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It was quite fascinating to be a part of – and sometimes I was even allowed to pull a sheet or a halyard here and there – when I wasn’t doing the social media posts to all friends back home who were following our progress on the tracker and Facebook that is…

Vic and I are still learning lots about the boat, and one particular thing we managed to find out during the race was the location of the holding tank breather/overflow outlet. I was loitering on the rail with some fellow crew members when the holding tank contents erupted – in High Voltage fashion, out from just below the port side toe-rail, narrowly missing Dave’s leg… Thank goodness it wasn’t terribly windy at the time, I can’t even begin to imagine how terrible it would have been had that blown downwind over all the crew in the cockpit. Eeew…

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As the day wore on, and the sun went down, we were still ahead of some of our nearest competitors. When darkness arrived the wind died completely and we were left to the mercy of the Cook Strait tide, which while carrying us generally in the right direction for a while it was just about to change.

And change it did… as we were bobbing away in the moonlight our speed began to increase, but instead of taking us towards Stephens Island, we were doing about 2kts in reverse.

“Throw out the anchor!” ordered Matt to the crew. I looked at the depth sounder. We were in 60 metres of ocean. “WTF..??!!” I thought politely to myself as I grovelled around in the locker digging out the anchor, chain, rode, and two spinnaker sheets to add to the rode, all the while thinking that this mad idea would never work.

But work it did! The anchor grabbed and our backwards progress ceased. Vic put the kettle on and we all had a cuppa tea and a gingernut biscuit, while bobbing about on a glassy calm, eerily quiet, non-ferocious Cook Strait. #itwasweird.

Sensing this would be a good opportunity to get some sleep, I dozed off on a pile of sails on the floor for a couple of hours before a call was made at midnight that there was finally some wind! Thank heavens for the anchor windlass. It would have been a mission to pull that anchor up from 60 metres, but we chucked some sails up in the light of an almost full moon, and we were off sailing again, up and around the top of Stephens Island and then turned down towards Nelson.

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The sun was rising as we sailed past the entrance to Port Hardy on d’Urville Island. We were still in close proximity to some of our fellow competitors including Satellite Spy, Clear Vision and The Guarantee. The race to the finish was on!

The breeze filled in nicely behind us and we all tore towards the finish, we dropped the kite as we gybed around the final mark and in to the shelter of Port Nelson. Our time was exactly 24 hours & 5 minutes as we passed pile #4 on our way up the harbour.

Finally it was time for that beer! Well deserved I’d say. Good job team!

And we got 4th place!

fullsizeoutput_236cDave, Chris, John, Me, Matt, Guy & Vic

Half our crew dashed off to the airport, while the rest of us had a quick banter with the other crews who were all settling in for a night of revelry at the Tasman Bay Cruising Club.

Unfortunately for us though we had a plane to catch – 80 miles away, in 26 hours time, back in Waikawa, and it was getting windier by the minute.

You may remember my blog posts from a course I did on the weather a while back. You can read all about weather forecasting here. The trouble is that there are so many places you can get a weather forecast from these days, and they all seem to say something different. If they all read the same thing then life would be easy. But they don’t always align – so what do you do?

So to get around this, there is another tried and tested weather system that many sailors use, and that is to find a weather forecast that says what you want it to say, and then disregard everything else…

The Windy app was telling us it was going to be about a 25kt NW. Metservice was saying 50kts… Both were saying NW, so at least we agreed on something. The outlook wasn’t much better either, and with a narrow window of when we could transit French Pass, and with a plane to catch – we set off, because at least one of the forecasts said it wasn’t going to be THAT windy…

Sailing to a deadline, setting off in bad weather, with an average forecast, tired from the last 24 hours of racing. What could possibly go wrong…!?

So we set off, wind on the nose, motoring in to a choppy headwind. With 30 miles from Nelson to French Pass, and the tide running in our favour from 7pm, we had to hustle to get some miles under our keel if we were going to get through before it got pitch dark and the tide turned to run in about 7kts in the other direction just after midnight.

Eventually we were able to bear away enough to hoist the #4 headsail which gave us a bit more speed, but the wind and seas were building as we went. I was down below when a particularly large wave broke over the bow, completely drenching Chris and Dave in the process and filling the cockpit.

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Taking photos was becoming difficult as it required both hands to hold on as High Voltage turned from thoroughbred racehorse in to a wild bucking bronco, threatening to throw us off the boat.

Dave and Chris did an amazing job getting soaked on deck, wrestling with the tiller as we rode over wave after wave, while Vic and I offered navigational support, drinks, encouragement and chocolate from inside the cabin, trying not to fall over and injure ourselves or each other. Both of us wondering how the hell were we going to get on in these kinds of conditions in the two handed race!

Finally after what seemed like forever we were able to run downwind towards the gap separating d’Urville Island from the Mainland, and in to the channel that becomes French Pass.

Thankfully the sea smoothed out and the wind seemed to ease off a bit as we entered the lee of the Island. The favourable tide flowing through French Pass was exhilarating to ride as we galloped through the rapids running swiftly between the two lighthouses. We were all so relieved to be through the other side and out of the big waves and wind, and just as the light was really starting to fade.

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We motored on towards Catherine Cove. I’d called ahead to the resort to see if we could pick up one of their moorings. “You sure can” they replied. “But it is a bit windy in here!”.

Well that was a bit of an understatement. Up ahead we could see a wall of white water rapidly advancing towards us, moments before we were hit with a huge gust of wind, knocking the boat down on her side – even without any sails up.

“Well this is going to make picking up the mooring interesting” I thought to myself as I crouched on the deck like a turtle hanging on for dear life to avoid being blown overboard… I switched on my LED Lenser headlamp and shone it randomly around the area where we’d hoped to find some moorings. Finally I spotted a buoy in the distance. Chris was wielding a boathook in one hand and a heavy line in the other, I shone my light while Dave & Vic manoeuvred us towards the mooring. We would be almost there when another huge gust would barrel down the valley knocking us off course and we’d have to circle back around again.

Finally we managed to hook the buoy and we got a line through the loop and on to the bollard on the bow, but we really needed to get the line through the bow roller. Anyway after ages of faffing around, the plan was to loop one of our heavy lines through the roller, through the mooring loop and back on to the boat, but in the process of doing that, we managed to lose the whole thing over the side… Arraggghhh!

So we went through that whole process again, until finally we were actually secured to the mooring and even had a lazy line as a backup incase the first one failed. It had taken us an hour and a half to get tied up…

By this time it was nearly midnight. Vic heated up some rice risotto, which we all eagerly slurped up, before we set the anchor alarm and watched the wind speed gauge record a 70kt gust! OMG that is windy!!! Vic and I curled up on the sails on the floor, fully clothed – even in our boots, and the boys who’d spent most of the last 10 hours getting completely drenched got the soft cosy quarter berth bunks.

The wind changed in the night, setting off the anchor alarm, but we were still firmly attached to the mooring, thank goodness. Andrew and Pagie had been texting through helpful weather advice for the morning. It was looking good if we got away first thing they both concurred.

We had 30 miles to Cape Jackson – our first hurdle, and then in to the sheltered safety of Queen Charlotte Sound where we had another 20 miles to get to Waikawa marina. There were a few places we could have stopped to shelter en-route along the way should we need it.

The wind was still screaming through the rigging, but when I did finally put my head out the hatch, the sun was out and it didn’t look too bad. We dropped the mooring, put up the #4 again, and with the wind up our bum, and a relatively flat sea and favourable current, we were able to do about 10kts over the ground, covering the 30 miles to Cape Jackson in just three hours.

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Cape Jackson is a bit of a scary place too in the wrong conditions. Its possible to shoot the gap between the lighthouse and the headland, with only a couple of rocks to avoid, along with some treacherous currents as well. God is it any wonder why I have got so much grey hair these days…!?!?

Anyway spoiler alert – we made it! And even better news – there was still some beer in the fridge, along with 1kg of bacon and a whole loaf of bread, which Vic made up in to one of the best bacon butties I have ever eaten…

After we demolished that, and drank all the beer, we packed up the boat, saw a whale, a seal and a couple of dolphins, and finally arrived at Waikawa Marina. I realised at that stage that I hadn’t taken off my sailing boots since Friday morning – and it was now Sunday afternoon. Eeew… Just as well they are super sexy Dubarry sailing boots then isn’t it?

We’d had a weekend of two halves. Champagne sailing, and a complete hammering, racing fast, and cruising conservatively, a night at anchor in the middle of a glassy Cook Strait and a night on what should have been a sheltered mooring in 70kts.

Another great adventure with amazing people, new friends and lots more lessons learned!

For some more tips on crossing Cook Strait you can read my “Crossing Cook” post here.

4 thoughts on “The Wellington to Nelson Race

  1. Holy moley!!! 70 kts!!! That’s a wee bit sporty! Sounds so exciting though and happy you had a strong finish. Congrats! You’ve taught me another new word…faffing. I like it. LOL! Now, what is a bacon buttie? Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Crossing Cook Strait | Astrolabe Sailing

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