This past weekend, we had an overnight row on the Hauraki Gulf. Bad weather was forecast and materialised.
We begun on Saturday at 3pm from Waitemata Harbour with TVNZ presenter Matt Chisholm on board (our ‘special guest’) for a 24-hour stint with the crew, as a part of his presentation on Close Up.
Matt was to come with us to get a hands-on experience of living on board, which he did. After two hours of rowing with Andrew and James, we were caught up by our 60-ft support catamaran, Te Okuea, which had Rob, a TV crew, and a few other people on board.
It was decided that we will be towed towards Great Barrier Island and then row back from there. We were towed at about 5 knots from around 5pm until nearly 1am, by which time we were around 10 nautical miles from Great Barrier Island which sits outside Hauraki Gulf, north of the Coromandel Peninsula, and has the Pacific on the east.
The conditions were not ideal: up to 40kt winds near the island (although only 20-25kt earlier on), with irregular 2m swells.
Being pulled into the swells in darkness meant that the boat was going up and down, about every few seconds but sometimes more frequently.
The bow cabin was consequently going up and down the waves, sometimes up to 3m, every 4 seconds. Inside of the cabin, it felt like we were in a falling elevator, and that is what it looked like from my view in the stern cabin. 105kg Andrew was being flown off his sitting position as the boat crashed down, to land firmly the next second and again get lifted 2m up.
Needless to say, everyone inside the cabins, except for James, got sick (Andrew never really went in – with the exception of a half-hour stint of sitting slouched over in bow cabin, he never went to sleep!).
Nigel vomited around 3 times, first time in his 19 years of sailing. He also said this was the worst experience he has ever had (he sailed across the Atlantic when he was 16).
Matt has also vomited while lying next to me in the cabin. Fortunately I placed a bucket into the foot well, and Matt had the presence of mind to aim well.
The cabin was filled with the smell of tuna with onion that we had for dinner before darkness. That did not help my sea-sickness.
Andrew was on watch most of the way in the tow after 7pm with James. Neither of them were sick. I was doing most of the steering before the dark, and afterwards retired to stern cabin.
Between 7pm and midnight, I was sitting and staring out of the cabin door, partly open, as splash after splash landed on my face. I was trying to control my feeling of sea-sickness, as bouts of burps signalling an oncoming vomit kept coming up my esophagus.
I could not stop thinking that this is not for me. I thought that quitting was surely the only option when returning to Auckland the next day. I was waiting for the vomit instinct to arrive any moment, and thought possibly I should induce it for some relief. But it never arrived and I gradually got better. So much so that I was ready to lay down by midnight – just as I was called up to do my watch. James told me it will get better after we are not towed anymore, that it was the forcing of the boat into the waves that caused the unnatural violence of the motion. James was right.
After getting dropped off at 1am, I felt much better. I steered the first rowing shift while Andrew and Nigel rowed. We agreed to 1-hour sequencing. I don’t think we will follow this later on; one hour is nowhere near long enough to get sufficient rest. Because of the 40kt winds (40kt=74km/h) and 2m swells, we always had to have a third person steer (our auto-pilot was off). It is important to steer down the waves, to avoid having a wave take us sideways, and possibly roll the boat.
After the first shift, Andrew steered while me and James rowed and Nigel slept. Then I went for my 1hr of sleep while Matt tested his rowing for the first time. I could manage to get rest but not to sleep, except maybe for a short snooze, and by the time it was 5:15am I felt ready for some more rowing. I again rowed for an hour, as the sky got lighter.
By now we had left the protective waters of Great Barrier Island, and the open channel of water between it and Coromandel Penninsula channeled large swells from the Pacific, forced by strong NE winds.
So to my surprise, the waves got bigger and more unpredictable as we got closer to Auckland. They were gun-grey, but later dark grey-blue, which I found pretty.
At around 6:30am, we were approached by our support boat (which was typically about 0.5-1.5km away from us, but visible), and were told that our progress is too slow (we were averaging about 2.7knots over land) and we won’t make it back to Auckland in time for James’ and my evening flights (we already knew that was the case).
So after my second night session, I took to the steering cables again with Andrew, and we went under tow for 2 hours, while James had a rest and Nigel and Matt chatted outside under the wing of bow cabin. This was a lot of fun!
Surfing the waves in a 10m boat is amazingly thrilling, and surprisingly fast. At times we gained enough speed to almost catch up to our towing boat, which was some 50m ahead of us.
I think our max speed was around 8 knots, or 14.8km/h down a wave. On the fastest of all surf runs, the tow rope got tangled around our rudder and nearly broke it off.
The support boat quickly had to release the tow line, and after James untangled the tow rope from around the rudder while leaning out of the bow hatch, we agreed to start rowing again. The sea was still pretty rough, but we thought we should make the Rangitoto channel if rowing three at a time, in about 1.5 hours, in time before the tide change.
The guys rowed three-up while Nigel steered and I had a great 1hr of sleep. Afterwards, it was time for Nigel and I to row. James stayed with us for a bit until we reached North Head, while Andrew steered. It took about two hours to come all the way to Auckland Harbour, with a stiff easterly blowing us in.
Andrew, James and I finished off the last bit of rowing to our launch spot. I don’t remember seeing such big waves in the Auckland Harbour before.
We were all very tired, I slept 1.5 hours, Andrew nothing at all (you can’t count sitting slouched in a cabin for half an hour as sleep), Nigel had maybe four hours of rest interrupted by vomiting, while James looked like a fish in the water, sleeping when required, and having the presence of mind in what seemed like familiar sailing situations to him.
After we got the boat back to the boat park, we unpacked our private contents, and left the rest to Nigel, who kindly offered to do everything else the next day. I had to go, while the guys went for a beer/burger debrief.
It was an eye-opening epic to me, that left me scared and excited in equal parts. There are things we definitely need to address (work/sleep patterns, other basics), but we are clearly on the target overall. Next month, this will happen for real.
- Martin Berka