THE MINCE TART VOYAGE.
(Or for Ransome fans: ‘We Didn’t Mean To Go To Bluff’)
My father was once asked if it was possible to walk between Australia and New Zealand at low tide. Apparently it was a serious question from an American who clearly had little knowledge of either geography or tides. Having just spent eight days crossing the Tasman at a steady jog, I figure it would have to be a mighty long Low Tide, notwithstanding the 4000 metre inter-tidal range.
Until now, if anyone had proposed sailing between Australia and New Zealand’s southern-most customs ports two weeks before the mid-winter solstice, Barbara and I would have seriously questioned their sanity. Sane sailors don’t generally pop across this stretch of ocean, south of the 45th parallel, at this time of year. The proof was in the pudding – not a single vessel to be seen from Storm Bay to Foveaux Strait. Yet there we were, sailing New Zealand Maid past Fiordland’s snow-capped peaks in the splendid company of albatrosses, prions and petrels as the Bluff fisherfolk were scraping the frost off their ‘winderscreens’.
Of course it wasn’t meant to happen like this. I’d proposed a nice little jaunt across to Enzed at around the equinox, in a comfortable patch of settled weather and of course a full moon to light up our night watches. However – as always – things got in the way. Matt and Laura’s Bruny Island wedding, preparing the house for tenants, an ever-expanding list of re-fit jobs on the Maid…. Before we knew it, May was upon us with a parade of Cold Fronts to taunt us. When at last the promise of a slow-moving blocking High appeared on the meteorological horizon, Barbara and I abandoned our list and resolved to seize the moment. It was a great concept – stock the Maid up with diesel and ride a High across the whole way, for a Gentleman’s Passage to NZ.
Our eldest son Ben was not impressed. In his view we needed to shake down the Maid to sort out potential glitches in all the electrical, mechanical and rigging work we had recently been doing. As a teacher of shipboard safety and navigation he knew what he was talking about. But Barbara and I were sick of the Lists – the ceaseless preparation. We were grateful when he eventually relented and offered to sail with us. It would be his eleventh crossing under sail, far more than our combined total. With Ben, Dan and Matt pitching in to help during the final days, things moved fast.
The great thing about Ben is that he’s the ultimate package for this sort of voyage. Square rig officer, Antarctic skipper, walking maritime encyclopaedia and techno-buff all rolled into one. He could teach us to drive the new four-year-old radar/plotter, set up handy-billies and share the night watches. It would compensate for all his lectures about how silly we were being.
We all decided that this passage had to be named ‘The Mince Tart Voyage’. The reason was simple. Our final act in the last sleepless night of provisioning had been to empty our Bruny Island freezer and load its contents aboard for the trip. (This would mean eating our way through rather a lot of meat – anything remaining would be destroyed by NZ Quarantine officials on arrival.) And there at the very bottom of the freezer was a glorious discovery – five dozen fruit-mince tarts which had been squirrelled away at Christmas for winter treats. Coupled with the 3 kg fruit cake our friends Kim and Tony had already given us, night watches were to become rather gluttonous.
The concept of setting sail in the midst of a slow-moving high-pressure system sounds good on paper. We pored over the various 10-day weather models and being an optimist I chose to ignore the one with the bad weather behind the system. We filled the tanks with diesel, along with seven 20 litre jerry-cans. Enough fuel for 750 miles of motoring. Simple !
There is a flaw to this concept though. It became more obvious on our third night out, as we struggled with a faulty auto-pilot. The HF radio began issuing storm-warnings for the Australian and Tasmanian coasts behind us. We would have to keep moving within the bubble of east-moving high pressure to avoid being caught in the squash zone behind it. But with very little wind we were being forced to use up our fuel reserves. With 1150 miles to Nelson (equivalent of Scotland to Greenland), we would be a sitting duck when the fuel ran out – wallowing in a light head-wind that would rapidly become a head-gale.
Ben’s proposal was one that Barbara and I had joked heartily about weeks earlier : alter course for the southern tip of NZ, to the customs port of Bluff (there are no clearance ports on the west coast). At a mere 950 miles on the rhumb line, this would save us two days and reduce the diesel deficit. Already radio reports were announcing carnage and significant loss of life behind us in Australia. (Talking to our live-aboard neighbour via our new twenty-year-old Codan HF radio, we learned that our Tasmanian marina finger had just snapped in half !) A course alteration really was a no-brainer, despite ending up some 600 miles from our intended destination.
Once we had gotten used to the idea we settled down to thoroughly enjoy the trip. Barbara cooked up a succession of wonderful meals, doing her best to consume anything that would be snaffled by NZ quarantine officials on arrival. We motor-sailed through gentle seas whilst completing some of the tasks left on the List, even a little joinery and rigging work. We became masters at the art of power-assisted sailing – setting six sails and using an idling engine to draw the gentle following breeze forward of our beam. This would bring the log up to a wonderful six-plus knots, using a minimum of fuel.
Puysegur Point at the southern tip of Fiordland has a particularly nasty reputation, and obliged us by freshening the NE breeze to a welcome 25 knots as we approached, guaranteeing the survival of our remaining two cans of diesel, and dipping the lee rail briefly for a deck-wash. With a storm warning announced for this patch of water next day, we were particularly pleased to see the log climb to eight knots.
The last time Barbara and I visited Bluff was to hitch a ride to Antarctica for hut maintenance work, aboard the Akademik Shokalskiy on her infamous 2014/5 debacle voyage. This time – inward bound with the flood tide – we were reminded a little of Antarctica, with ice still encrusting the wharf as we docked. It was eight days to the very hour since our departure – probably our slowest trans-Tasman but certainly our most sedate. And ahead of us was the unusual but very welcome prospect of a brief Stewart Island cruise before farewelling Ben and wandering up the East Coast to Nelson.
Believe it or not, there are still a dozen mince tarts in the starboard locker for those north-bound night watches.
JON TUCKER [Thanks Babs for your great photos]