In his book Wild Journeys, released in paperback this month, Bruce Ansley recounts the time he sailed around the North Island in a boat called the Crocus
My brother Craig owns a fine boat, the Crocus, which he built over two decades or so. It was based on a design by the Norwegian naval architect Colin Archer, famous for his seagoing yachts.
So I was perfectly happy to entrust my life to it when Craig rang one day and asked if I would crew his boat on the second half of a North Island circumnavigation. We were to sail from Picton up the west coast of the North Island and yes, around North Cape. We would then sail down the east coast to Auckland.
I'm not a very good sailor mainly because I can't be bothered with the essential detail. My main talent, as a sailor, is that I don't get seasick, although another common sailing dictum is that someone who hasn't been seasick simply hasn't sailed far enough.
Picton lay dark the evening I arrived, the boat lying massively in the quiet water: the solidity of her, the romance of her mast and rigging.
She looked as if she'd just come around the world, shaken off the salt water like a dog, and was ready to jump back in again. A determined-looking bowsprit jutted in front and her solid rudder hung off the canoe stern that Archer boats were famed for.
Without any messing around, off we went up the knobbly Queen Charlotte Sound, past Blumine Island, and Pickersgill, and Long Island, and Motuara Island, where Cook raised the flag and took possession of the South Island for King George III, and Cannibal Cove where a boatload of sailors from the Adventure, sister ship to Cook's Resolution, were cooked and eaten, and into a full gale blasted by the bellows of Cook Strait.
Small-boat voyages are the stuff of dreams, of sailing blue seas with one hand on the tiller and the other clutching a tall drink, one eye on the horizon and the other seeing palm trees beyond.
I've yet to have one like that. The truth is that, particularly belting into a fresh wind and a short sea, you think of dice in a cup so sympathetically you fancy you may never play Snakes and Ladders again.
The most seaman-like way of dealing with the situation is to set the self-steering, which works through a wind vane and enables the boat to steer itself; check the radar detector, which detects other vessels' radar and sets off an alarm; hop into your sleeping bag and put up something called a lee-cloth, which stops you from falling out of bed; and pop out every so often to check that all is well. And since by now it was dark, that is what we did.
In this way we snored deep into the South Taranaki Bight until, on one of my trips into the cockpit to gaze blindly around, terrify myself with the masses of water which towered one moment then passed harmlessly underneath, and convince myself all was well, I noticed that we were sailing into the middle of a large city. I said so, loudly.
My brother, a much better sailor, who knew exactly where we were and what lay ahead, told me these were oil rigs.
Oil rigs? They were sea-borne skyscrapers, monsters full of lights and ill intent.
The sun rose, and as it often does after dark and stormy nights, the wind died, the sea flattened and the oil rigs became well, just oil rigs. Taranaki took its graceful shape and Cape Egmont, whose every headland once boasted a pa, turned into its cracked and crenellated self.
Six knots or so is quite a decent speed for a tubby, heavy boat in what was now a good breeze and a smooth sea. The rule of thumb for sailing ships was to calculate voyage times at 160 kilometres a day. The Crocus could do much better, but still, going around the coast on a yacht is rather like jogging beside a mountain range. Nothing changes very much for a long time, but the next time you take notice, everything is different.
New Plymouth went by and there was sea, and more sea, all of it empty, and night fell again.
We divided the night into watches, which meant that one of us was responsible for the boat at certain times of the night, and it was during Craig's watch that I got out of bed to go to the toilet and check the chart-plotter while I was about it. This was an excellent instrument which showed exactly where the boat was, and where it was going, and a red line showed where it had been. The line showed that at some point in the night the wind had changed and the vane had turned the boat through a neat right angle and we were now heading for Australia.
I woke Craig and told him so. He seemed unimpressed. What was he going to do about it? I asked. He was thinking about that, he replied.
I went on to the toilet and passed his bunk on the way back. He snored in a carefree sort of way. Oh well, I decided, it was his boat, and I went back to bed.
The sun rose on a small boat out at sea with no land in sight. We turned around, and slowly, magically, New Zealand reappeared. I was relieved.
We passed a fishing boat, quite close, but if we expected some salty camaraderie, some companionship on the ocean — for after all we were the only two boats in the world as far as we could see — we were disappointed. The crew worked on deck without so much as looking up. Were they poaching?
Cape Maria van Diemen began to take shape, one of the world's most beautiful capes, white sand reaching through bones of rock to a knuckle at its end and Motuopao Island settling just offshore, the remains of its old lighthouse symmetrical as a castle keep. Beautiful like a yellow-bellied sea snake.
Cape Reinga was now in sight. It is not New Zealand's most northerly point, but it is the nation's northernmost tourist attraction.
Two great seas meet right there, the Tasman Sea on the west side, the Pacific Ocean on the east. It is not a friendly meeting. The two clash and bash.
The result is often called a "confused sea". I don't think it is at all confused. The two staunch up to each other and, since neither will give way, turmoil ensues. White waters twist and whirl and dump like wrestlers.
I stood up there on the cape once, sheltering beside the famous lighthouse with a busload of tourists in a gale, and all of us were awed. It was strange, and distant, as if we were in another place.
We were peering into the devil's hole, and we felt so light upon the ground that we looked for something to hold on to. No one so much as reached for a phone. The fury of it scared everyone. None of us stayed long.
I resolved never, ever, to go anywhere near that place by sea. Yet here I was, sailing around it — and the frothing water leapt, danced around in the sun.
Now the perfect sweep of Spirits Bay lay on our starboard side. The Maori name for Spirits Bay is Kapowairua. It was once home to Tohe, a Ngati Kahu chief. He left his people to make a last visit to his daughter, who lived on the Kaipara, enjoining his people to grasp his spirit should he die. He did die before reaching his daughter, and the bay took the name he bequeathed, "spirit". It's said to be the place where spirits of the dead leave for the afterlife, and if that is so, then they'll depart with fond memories.
From the land, on a good day, the bay is a perfect curved beach, Northland's bluey-green sea pumping delicious waves on to its pale sand. From the sea it is more mysterious. A Department of Conservation campsite, said to be one of the best in New Zealand, lies at its eastern end under Hooper Point. Beyond lies Tom Bowling Bay, and a light shone in its corner. A house? Here? Tom Bowling Bay is not only uninhabited, it is very hard to get
into. I resolved to check later.
Almost there. But the top of New Zealand has a quirk. Despite the mythology, North Cape to the Bluff and so on, North Cape is not the northernmost part of New Zealand. The Surville Cliffs occupy that spot. With the colonial habit of calling landmarks after European passers-by rather than using the names bestowed by the locals for centuries, these commemorate a French captain, Jean-Francois-Marie de Surville, who saw them just a few days before Captain Cook did.
By now dusk was gathering and by any name at all the Surville Cliffs were gloomy. They rose sheer from the sea, white foam lighting their base. North Cape lay just around the corner.
It was quite dark now. Some people are sanguine about approaching a coast in a small boat at night. I am not one of them. I find a dark coast frightening and a black cape truly
terrifying, being both extremely hard by nature and difficult to climb by shipwrecked sailors, even scared ones with large waves up their backsides.
North Cape, or Otou, seemed alarmingly close, and waves crashed and banged as they do. And what was that beyond? An island? No one had mentioned that. But here it was, Murimotu, where the cape's lighthouse (a residual stump replacing the cast iron classic of old) flicked on and off.
Many sailors welcome lights. They're a symbol of hope, a metaphor for life, love, a path to salvation. They scare me. I know that beneath them lies something dark and savage.
My grip on the tiller was firm, in the way a dead man's clutch has to be pried loose. Below, in the cabin, Craig peered into his chart-plotter, and reeled off the course, a few degrees this way, a couple of degrees that. I halved the number of degrees towards the
cape and doubled the number away from it. I was quite certain we were heading for the rocks.
Surf rumbled. Black rock loomed. The light winked. Come closer, big boy.
And we were round. We would anchor for the night, said Craig. My god, here?
No, off a sandy beach that lay beyond. He'd anchored there before. It was good. Safe.
We eased around the cape in darkness so deep, so profound: it was as terrifying as the small hours when you wake blind, not knowing where you are.
Now the sound of the cape behind us was being drowned (oh, that awful word) by the noise of waves breaking on a beach. That was not good, I knew. Waves could suck in a yacht and spit it onto the beach in several bits. 'Close, just a little closer,' said my brother on the chart-plotter. But he could feel my nervousness.
'This'll do,' he said, and we dropped the anchor off Waikuku Beach. The Waikuku Flats are a tombolo which join North Cape, once an island itself, to the mainland. He slept soundly, I woke often. On land, waves shush in a soothing way. At sea they hiss.
© Abridged extract from Wild Journeys by Bruce Ansley published by HarperCollins New Zealand