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A change to warmer waters

A change to warmer waters
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We continue to follow the adventures of Ross and Chris Greenwood who are sailing the Pacific Ocean for three years, carrying out environmental, educational and conservation work.

We spent the summer of 2017/2018 cruising the northern part of New Zealand and continuing with our beach clean-ups, education and research trawling. Winter seemed to disappear overnight like the thawing of a light frost on a soft breeze and by early October the weather set into a regular pattern of light winds and warm spring days. The evenings grew longer and warmer, and a cool beer in the cockpit each evening became the norm once again. The good weather seemed never ending through spring and early summer, and before long Christmas was upon us, bringing a succession of tropical low-pressure cyclones (Downgraded to tropical lows as they move south out of tropical waters towards subtropical New Zealand). The worst of these gave us troublesome winds for a day and a half reaching 70 knots over a particularly boisterous night. There was much shouting and rude gesturing as other boats hiding from the storm close by, began dragging anchors and colliding with their unhappy neighbours. A friend of ours was hit four times during the night by a big launch, sustaining considerable damage. Our decision to anchor well clear of everybody else that had crowded into the seemingly most sheltered parts of the bay proved a good decision. Hiding is a very tenuous business when it’s blowing that hard.

It’s long been said that the Hauraki Gulf area around Auckland is a sailors’ paradise, with dozens of beautiful islands, anchorages and beaches to explore. Having spent three months cruising there, we couldn’t agree more. Magnificent is the word that springs to mind and we were glad that our aborted trip offshore the year before had given us the opportunity to spend the summer at home, in new waters  of New Zealand.

Once again the results of our efforts of trawling for plastic turned out positive results, with almost all the samples analysed by NIWA (National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research) providing more evidence of microplastics in the oceans around northern NZ. Having now spent a whole year monitoring plastic pollution around the coast of NZ we were not surprised by the results. The amount of discarded single use plastics as well as commercial rubbish from the aquaculture industry was, in some areas, disconcerting to say the least. Whilst many beaches remain clean and reasonably free from rubbish and plastic, others seem to be strategically placed to catch a constant deluge deposited by the local currents. No one enjoys supporting the New Zealand Green Lipped Mussel industry more than I do, I love them, I can happily munch through a $12 pot in one sitting – but I do have to question my eating habits when I see the amount of plastic twine and polypropylene ropes that end up washed up on the shoreline as a result of poor and negligent practice. It wasn’t long before our photographic evidence and carefully worded letters were in the mail to those who can influence a change.

The highlight of our summer was spending over two months on Great Barrier Island – so named by Captain Cook, as it stands 50 miles offshore seemingly guarding the Hauraki Gulf. A stunningly beautiful island with a huge array of wildlife, hiking and fishing. A rugged bush clad interior that also boasts some of the finest and remote sandy beaches anywhere in NZ. We saw dolphins, orca, and a few pilot whales, and never failed to catch snapper whenever we wanted fish for dinner.

Along with many other yachties the late Sir Peter Blake said it was his favourite place in New Zealand, and we now understand why. The vibe of the place is subtle yet inspiring with many locals choosing a simple – away from it all - existence. To access some of the more remote walks we hitchhiked all over the island (it only really has one road) and it’s the only place we’ve ever been where people would stop and apologise for not being able to give us a ride. ‘The car’s full, only going 100 yards, sorry, just live round the corner’ were all common exchanges. It turned out to be a great way to meet the locals and have a chat about life on the Barrier. We ended up on first name terms with the local courier driver who picked us up three times in three completely different areas of the island. We met the local primary school kids one day on the wharf at Port Fitzroy, a small hamlet consisting of only a few houses, a local store, and a yacht club that opened a few days a week through the summer. They had spent the day doing beach clean-ups around the island, before bringing their loads back to the wharf for categorization and disposal. The results were sent back to Auckland University to be added to their statistics. The school has been doing this every year for five years. What a fantastic exercise for a young community to be doing.

With summer coming to a close and the tropical cyclone season almost over we were looking for a weather window to head up to the Tropics. Within two weeks of arriving in the Bay of Islands a weather window to make the 1100-mile passage up to Fiji appeared on the horizon, giving us a departure date early in May. We were not expecting a window quite so soon, so we spent a busy week readying the boat and watching the weather window in anticipation. The weather held so we bid farewell to New Zealand and made the passage in 10 days, in mostly light and medium strength winds, the last five with the wind slightly ahead meaning Sula was on a constant, and tiring, 45 degree angle of heel. Through the night my wife Chris and I take it in turns to do four-hour watches, the first one starting at 6pm. During the day we each play catch up on sleep if we need it. To test our patience, when only 24 hours out from Suva, the capital of Fiji, we encountered 30 knot rain squalls until the fitting at the top of our headsail failed and left us without our most powerful ally. Patience prevailed but made the last 100 miles a rather tiresome affair.

Fiji sunrises are the best ever. Fiery red and dramatic behind huge towering cumulus clouds, they show off the dazzling colour in all its glory. The Fijian people are extremely friendly with a very strong cultural heritage, an inquisitive nature and a sense of goodwill to all visitors. Within a few days of our arrival and with all the formalities over, we headed out to the island of Kandavu and in particular its northern part, which is enclosed by the Astrolabe Reef, an area with over 10 islands, all within a few miles apart.

The water is warm and soft with the sparkling clear blueness of the Pacific. At Dravanui, our first port of call, we headed ashore to undertake our formal Sevusevu with the chief. It is still a strong tradition in the islands to present the village chief a present of Kava root, which they pound out and mix with water to make an interesting muddy brown drink that has, after several,, the strange effect of disconnecting all sensible use of the legs from the brain. Much to the amusement of all those who sit crossed legged sharing the distinct slightly gritty drink with you.

Once the Sevusevu is accepted the chief then bids you a formal welcome to the village allowing you to become part of the community with as much fishing and snorkelling as you wish. We were lucky enough to swim with a huge three metre wide manta ray that feed off the top of one of the islands. Sevusevu is a very cool tradition (except for the wobbly leg syndrome) and is a great way of integrating into village life for a few days. Much of the area was hit very hard a few years ago by Cyclone Winston, killing many people, devastating whole villages and damaging lots of the coral reefs. One lady told us how her two full water tanks, each the size of a small car, were picked up never to be seen again. Stories of winds over 300 km/ph were common.

The good news is that the villages, with much needed help from Australia and New Zealand (who were first on the scene by several weeks), are slowly getting back on their feet. The coral reefs too are fighting back with a mass of regenerating growth. In 2017 a study showed that many corals damaged by high water temperatures and the effects of Cyclone Winston are once again blooming in the form of vibrant baby corals. It seems the corals are adapting to their new environment and rising sea temperatures.

Unfortunately one of the less positive things we have found on our travels so far in Fiji is an unprecedented amount of plastic. We have never seen so many plastic drink bottles washed up on the high tide mark. Thousands washed up on almost every beautiful shoreline we have explored. A problem to ponder on for the moment, as some kind of major initiative and behavioural change is required if the problem is to be dealt with efficiently.

One of the main reasons for coming back to Fiji since cruising here 11 years ago with our then young daughters, is to visit the Lau Group of islands out to the East. These islands are very remote and only recently have become open to the cruising fraternity without having special permission from the government. They are a very unique group of islands where the cultural heritage has been maintained more than anywhere else in Fiji. It will be very interesting to monitor plastic pollution and do some education work whilst visiting, what some people claim is one of the most beautiful group of islands in the whole Pacific.

At the moment we are in a small town called SavuSavu where we have successfully repaired our hydraulic anchor winch. As one very perceptive sailor once said, cruising life aboard a yacht is mostly about carrying out expensive boat maintenance whilst in exotic locations.

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Ross Greenwood is an Impact Associate. You can view the previous blog update by Ross and Chris Greenwood.