We left the south of New Zealand behind and headed for Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula near Christchurch New Zealand. A quiet, well kept, coastal resort with a microclimate that favours palm trees and tropical plants. Unspoilt, uncommercial with a local population that is both welcoming and friendly. Akaroa sits in the bottom of an extinct volcano with green rolling hills surrounding the perimeter. After being in Fiordland and Stewart Island for the summer it was like visiting a tropical paradise in a faraway land.
However, if there is one thing that changes fast in New Zealand, it’s the seasons. Autumn seemed to disappear from its golden magnificence and slipped through our fingers overnight. The first sprinkling of June snow arrived the day after with magnificent blue skies and white whispery clouds that sparkled in the early morning light. It was bitterly cold and a big winter storm was on its way, unfriendly, unforgiving, and prepared to instil its virtue on any of those living on a yacht that dared to be unprepared.
We moved round to Lyttleton to prepare for our departure towards Tahiti a few days later. Lyttelton is a jaundiced place when it comes to sitting out a gale, but we had little choice. In 2003 a southwesterly storm wrecked the breakwater and sank 23 yachts in the marina. They never bothered replacing it, and so, Parua Bay is the only shelter to anchor in a SW gale, and, as we were to find out, it’s not a great option. A glance at the weather charts brought a cold shiver and a ponderous faraway stare; the kind you allow yourself when you know something really grim could happen.
First it would blow up to 45 knots and then the following day to 55 knots, (over 100kph) all day, and all night. Not pleasant, but manageable if the anchorage is sheltered and you can hide in the corners from the worst of the gusts. Parua Bay, it turned out, was not that place!
It was 9.30 at night when we started dragging our anchor. It was gusting 60 knots in our “sheltered anchorage”. We had never dragged this anchor before, a top of the range, tried and tested new design that has a reputation bigger than Ben Hur. Alas, it was not the anchor that failed – but more the fine whispery, dust like silt we were anchored in. The fine alluvial sediment had no intention of allowing us our silent peaceful slumber once things got breezy.
We got blown out of the bay at a ridiculous angle of heel that we don’t even sail on.
Outside the bay it was even windier, with the surface of the sea more in the air than in its customary position. We motored back into the bay and re anchored in the gut wrenching howling gusts; a wailing banshee if ever there was such a thing. There wasn’t a lot of sleep that night, but Sula held on and the next day the sun shone and the wind disappeared to nothing more than a passing whisper. As I sat in the cockpit drenched in sunshine eating a bacon sandwich, the faraway stare began to dissolve.
The following day we met the customs and immigration officials early and readied Sula and ourselves for our offshore passage. We sailed for four days in a northeast direction making the most of the wind. However after four days of good sailing we started having problems with the hydraulic steering, and this, in turn, was causing other problems. It was a tough call to turn back west towards NZ, but we knew that if we didn't fix the problems now, they would be difficult to fix in the remote islands we were heading for. Sailing is mainly about three things - dealing with constant change, making fast decisions, and patience. Not always in that order.
We turned back to New Zealand and beat into a strong headwind and rough seas for almost two days. Sula was sailing on her ear, literally, heeled hard over on reduced sail. We arrived back in Napier on the North Island after six days at sea, disappointed, and feeling a bit flat.
After spending a week getting most things fixed on Sula we decided we needed a good shakedown cruise before heading offshore again and we headed up the east coast towards the Bay of Islands.
We rounded the East Cape of New Zealand, a place with a formidable reputation for being disagreeable, in flat calm conditions. Even the shearwaters and petrels were happy to sit in enormous flocks happily content at waiting for the wind to return.
Up in the north the sea sparkles a bright cobalt blue and is teaming with life. Tuna, Marlin, Snapper, are just some of the delights on offer should you find yourself lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. At this point and for various reasons we decided to spend the rest of the winter and summer continuing our project work on plastic pollution in New Zealand before heading offshore next year.
We love the Bay of Islands and have spent the last few months there before moving further north where we have carried out many beach clean-ups and a lot more trawling. Walks on many beaches produced bags full of plastic. But the thing we kept finding in abundance on many beaches were plastic pegs, the kind you hang your washing out with. On just two neighbouring beaches on the Cavalli Islands we found 70 in about 30 minutes. So we set about collecting and collating data and investigated the source. It soon became apparent they were from the Oyster Farms where they are used to hold down plastic nets for the Oysters to grow on.
After our first article was published in Boating New Zealand, we received data from other boaties in the area. The Environment Minister for Northland showed great concern at our findings and although the problem was known about, the extent was not. He replied to our research with great enthusiasm and a commitment to change the codes of practice around using plastic pegs in the Oyster Farming Industry in New Zealand.
All plastic breaks down eventually. Once plastic is eaten by the smallest of planktons it gives off a chemical called dimethyl sulphide. Sea birds are attracted to this smell and confuse it with food, thus dead seabirds all over the world are being found with plastic in their stomachs.
A new study this year calculated that there has been over nine billion tons of plastic produced since its invention in the 1950s. Half of which was made in the last 13 years, most of which we immediately throw away, and almost all of which is not biodegradable. Recent calculations estimate that by the year 2050 we will have produced 28 billion tons of plastic. So we really need to get on top of our disposal methods quickly.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are some very, very innovative and exciting developments taking place. Spanish researchers recently found a worm that can digest polyethylene. Some places in Europe have begun incinerating plastic to provide clean electricity. Waste plastic is being turned into building bricks. There are radical ideas being trialed to try and deal with the ever-growing Atlantic and Pacific Gyres. Plus lots of other great initiatives around the world.
As for our own endeavors the results of our first trawls down in Fiordland and Stewart Island returned from our oceanographer in NIWA (National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research) with six out of seven proving positive for microplastic pollution. A mixture of blue, white, and transparent fragments, unseen to the naked eye turned up in almost all of them. Plastic ocean pollution is almost everywhere. A growing problem we drastically need to deal with.
As for our own conclusions, although we remain optimistic about the health of our beautiful oceans we believe we all must make the effort to reduce our plastic consumption and more importantly it’s disposal.
Ross Greenwood is an Impact Associate.
Follow Ross’ adventures and findings at www.sulasailing.com
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