Breezing along in Golden Bay

By Sue Farley

Marahau on a still morning in early summer is crisp and blue. The sea is like glass as it creeps in over golden yellow sand flats. The bushy hills of the Abel Tasman National Park rise up behind this little seaside village, sheltering it from the cool sou-wester drifting off the snowy mountains in the nearby Kahurangi Park. It's a great day to go sailing.

Venturing along the coastline of the Abel Tasman Park under sail has not always been so readily available as a day trip.

Until now it has been the domain of 18th-century sailing ships, noisy fast-moving water taxis or slow, lumbering ferries. With two 40-ft sailing catamarans on the water each day, this is a much more genteel way of seeing this beautiful piece of the northern South Island coastline.

And, because these boats have two hulls, they don't heel over like a single-hulled yacht, which can be rather unnerving to non-sailors.

As soon as the tide is high enough to carry us out of the bay we drift off slowly under motor, our boat Alley Cat clearing the maze of channels and sand banks in minutes.

Mark, the skipper, has obviously spent time on these waters, as he steers with one hand while watching the depth of the water, delivering a safety briefing in record time and launching into a five-minute run-down of the historic area we are sailing into.

The area was always popular with local Maori, long before the Europeans came through in their big white sailing ships. Evidence of middens and fertile, ancient kumara gardens sit well between stories of local chiefs and visiting waka parties.

Tasman and Cook each managed to miss the coastline completely, but French lieutenant Dumont D'Urville more than made up for this with his extensive visit in 1827, leaving a coastline renamed with a distinct French flavour - Adele Island, Coquille Bay, Astrolabe Roadstead, Isle de Pecheur (now Fishermans Island) and Anse du Torrents (now Torrent Bay).

Other names, such as Watering Cove and Observation Beach, tell of his work while in the area.

But on this summery day, history was a side issue as we slid up the coastline past hillsides of dark-green ponga and solitary beaches of golden sand.

Apart from the boat full of people beside us, we were alone.

The sea along the Abel Tasman coast is a particularly nice shade of translucent green. If there has been no rain for a while the visibility is amazingly clear.

We look over the side to see huge chunks of granite, which have fallen from the land over preceding millennia, metres below the surface. Tiny blue penguins paddle beside us and rocket-powered gannets dive from the sky to disappear into the water without a splash.

Their breakfast obviously moves fast.

Further up the coast fur seals are seen around Tonga Island, and some days whales or dolphins cruise through these coastal waters.

But today we are headed for Te Pukatea Bay, just beneath Pitt Head, where the two boats raft up and drift ashore to drop us on the sand for lunch.

Pukatea is a horseshoe-shaped bay that looks out to the eastern side of Tasman Bay far in the distance. North along that coast is another French connection, Croisilles Harbour, and D'Urville Island.

D'Urville's time in Tasman Bay was a mix of idyllic calm and frantic storm as he plotted the coastlines of both sides of the bay.

And today, the western coastline offers more pleasant sailing than the more-exposed, eastern side of the bay. We pack up after lunch to join the now solid sea breeze for the afternoon run home.

There really is no better thing to do on a yacht plying the sunny Abel Tasman coastline than to sit on deck, spinnaker sheet in hand, tweaking it from time to time, and following the huge red sail back down to Marahau.

Wakes of white water curl off the bows as we speed across the sea. We streak across the wind, reaching several kilometres out into the bay then gybing back across to come into Marahau on a perfect tack.

Having sledged down the coast under spinnaker like a seal shooting waves, we arrive with just a few centimetres of water under the keel as the tide leaves the bay for the day.

* Contact Abel Tasman Sailing Adventures on 0800 467245 or www.sailingadventures.co.nz (see link below).

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