Crossing the Tasman Sea

In April 2019, I set out to sail across Tasman Sea, from Auckland (NZ) all the way to Gold Coast, on a 44 ft Beneteau s/y Ocean Gem. This post will describe the sailing, another will account for my experiences on NorfolkIsland, and the third will tell about the anchoring adventures.

There are less people who have sailed across Tasman Sea than there are people who’ve been up on Mt Everest, and there is a good reason why. The weather there is highly unpredictable, and no weather report can be trusted – something I got to experience first hand. The sea stretches from the 30th parallel, all the way to just south of 55°. So if you look at the southern part of Tasman Sea, you’ll see that nothing is there to stop the winds blowing from the Roaring Forties, from the Screaming Fifties – and all the way from Antarctica. The many weather systems, including depressions and cyclones normally travelling from the West, will enter Tasman Sea and result in freezing Antarctic winds and high swells, sometimes against a countercurrent making the waves even steeper.

Weather change coming along swiftly
The trip I was attempting is over 1400 nautical miles, which means anything between 7 and 14+ days depending on weather and the setup of the boat, and there are no possible stops for fuel, food or shelter along the way except the island of Norfolk, a stop which may cause more difficulties than it may solve. Most sailors would instead go North towards New Caledonia, Fiji or Vanuatu, and take the shorter and more predictable and comfortable route from there – avoiding this area (also called “The Ditch”) altogether.

Tasman Sea is 5,493 deep, the bottom consisting of globigerina ooze. Globigerina is plankton which has populated the world’s oceans since the Middle Jurassic. There are many sea mountains, rising from a few thousand meters to just a few hundreds. Also, there’s a reef or two that are not visible during high tide (and not at all when there is lack of light). There is a multitude of shipwrecks at Middleton Reef alone, and a family that were on a yacht that got wrecked on the reef were stranded there for 6 weeks, living in the remains of an old shipwreck to get protection from the elements.

Blue waves of the Tasman Sea, on a calm day
I landed in Auckland on the 1st of April, after over 24 hours of travelling from Sweden. I crewed on s/y Ocean Gem, joining David, a skipper whom I have preciously competed in RSHYR with. I now crewed as Second In Command for this passage – a great opportunity to do some training for the coming RSHYR in December 2019.

The arrival day was spent organizing the provisions on board, and going through the medical kits to get them settled for the safety check before departure. Both activities were very useful, making sure I knew exactly what was located where. The two other crew arrived later that day, completing our team of 4. The day was concluded with a full safety walkthrough of the boat together.

In the morning of 2nd of April, the safety check was conducted by the NZ authorities. All jobs on board were completed, and we headed off to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron to have a look at America’s Cup displayed at the headquarters, along with all other prizes, trophies, paintings, banners and memorable objects. The whole team got admittance to Members Only Bar, where we enjoyed a few drinks and an evening meal, with superb views of the sea, including the former America’s Cup boats that were out and about!

America's Cup on display at RNZYS
Watching America's Cup boats in the background - after having a look at the actual America's Cup. On photo: Lena Padukova, aka Adrenalena
We sailed off at 10 am on the 3rd of April, after I was hoisted up the mast to adjust some rigging, while the customs clearing out took place. Before setting sail, we removed the main and replaced one of the slugs that had been broken. There are considerable forces on these, and they are made to be broken easier than the sail itself, acting as sacrificial protection to the main.

Selfie from the mast, after adjusting the rigging
The crispy sunny morning weather gave us a few photo opportunities before prompt changing to gray clouds and rain. The weather report showed clearly how the rain system will follow us all the way to the North Cape of New Zealand, changing to 25-30 (or more) knots of wind and up to 4 meters of swell. This promised some serious sailing, potentially very strenuous for crew and gear both.

Bye bye Auckland!
As we progressed northwards along the coast, nothing prepared us for any surprises. But suddenly, we lost our steering ability! The wind caught the sails and we crash gybed, but managed to engage emergency steering very fast, turned around and went to the nearest marina, which happened to be the Gulf Harbour Marina. Well docked there, we found the cause of the problem. The last reparation service of the steering cable, which was carried out in northern New Zealand, was done incorrectly. 

The repair was made again in the morning and off we went again! The breakdown set us back almost a day, but this meant that the rain systems had passed and the wind and swell was going to have calmed down as we would enter the open sea, which was good news – there’s far less risk sailing with slighter weather and seas. Dolphins accompanied us in the evening, a sign of good luck!

Sailing on!
We steered manually and run night shifts of two hours. Tricky steering as the moon was new and the stars were hidden by clouds, impossible to fix on anything on the horizon as everything was in almost complete darkness. The next morning brought slightly chilly winds (which called for a hot breakfast) with a lot of sun and some beautiful seas! We passed Cape North in the afternoon, seeing Cape Reinga in the distance, a beautiful moment. The next day, some whales made us company. Wind was unfortunately absent, so we motored a bit South of our intended course in order to pick up the S breeze that was promised by the weather reports. The night came with very little wind and quite a bit of rain.

On the next day, the 7th of April, we finally managed to pick up the wind, and sail goose-winged with the genoa poled out. The wind picked up as the day progresses, and we surfed down the waves making 10-11 knots! Unfortunately, this was the day when the autopilot gave up. This meant now that we could not leave the helm at all, as the 25 knots’ wind on the aft is just too happy to gybe at any moment. I stayed at the helm until 8 pm, and divided the rest of the night into 3 hours shifts for me and the skipper only, as the helming has become increasingly tricky. However, as I woke up for my shift, I was told that I am relieved, and would be called when it’s time. I tried an hour later, and same answer followed Turned out that the wind had picked up, defying anything that the weather report stated, and continued at up to 25 knots the whole night, which closed the possibilities for sail change, and meant that a crash gybe was a constant risk, and a potentially extremely dangerous one at this weather. David helmed manually the whole night, as he was far most used to the boat and managing these conditions. What an effort!

Just before sunrise, the wind dropped to just below 20 knots and we managed to gybe and execute the sail change, however managing to first furl the genoa around the forestay (and save it), and then to drop the genoa into the water. The halyard got stuck in the rudder and needed to be cut; luckily it did not get fouled further, and could be reused (however becoming a bit shorter). By the effort of three crew, we manage to pull up the sail, heavy from the water on top of it. We continued by main alone, which was enough to power the boat at this point. I took the helm, and we finally arrived to the island of Norfolk around lunchtime on the 8th of April.

Approaching Norfolk in a bit of swell.
There is a separate post about Norfolk Island and another one about our adventures and challenges there. We managed to sail off on the 10th of April, after spending a lot of time trying to get away!

Off the anchor, and soon ready to go - Cascade Bay off Norfolk Island.

And finally we were sailing Westwards again. Sun and light winds gave us ease of mind. After about half a day, wind changed to more favourable. We motor sailed and listened to music. It felt like we could do with a few days of monotonous sailing to make up for the eventful days. 

The only dramatic moments consisted of a freak wave breaking alongside of the boat and drowning the cockpit, including me at the helm and David who was peacefully sleeping on one of the benches – what a horrible way to wake up! Some other "dramatic" highlights include a cuttlefish flying into the cockpit and slapping David who was standing in the companionway; a flying fish jumping straight over the boat – and another one landing on my foot when I was helming.

Another beautiful sunset at Tasman Sea!
Just as the inhabitants of island of Norfolk, we’re running low on milk, which meant we needed to find creative solutions for breakfasts - and also needed to ration fuel as we only managed to refuel 40 litres. When the wind was too weak, we'd turn on the engine, but run it just enough to reach our target speed, so we would not run low. We emptied the extra fuel we carried in jerry cans into the tank. It had to be done having to balance on the transom in the swell, always a bit risky in case a wave would break against the aft and flood the tank as well as wash away the jerry cans, but there was no drama at all and we were once again somewhat filled up.

Hitting 1,000 nautical miles! Almost two thirds done. We celebrated with ginger sodas in champagne glasses.
On the 11th, I noticed that the topping lift was gone, but that was not an urgent issue as long as we could use the main, even fully reefed. The days were spent sleeping, eating, doing a few minor housekeeping/repair jobs, and of course helming. By this time, my arms and fingers were swollen, and wrists getting tender – over a week of active manual helming can have that effect. A few days further, my fingers would become numb. All of that naturally disappeared after the sailing is over and I could have a rest of more than a few hours. I was however very happy to get a possibility to do all the manual helming in these quantities, both to get the training by volume instead of just using the autopilot, and to get used to the physical effect and analyse how it progresses. I had sailed across the Pacific helming manually in larger volumes, a couple of weeks with waves of 4-5 meters and constant four-hour on/off watches, but I have managed to forget the physical effect it can has.

Att the helm, in the end of a night watch, the sun rises as it is time to finally get some rest.
The wind was definitely not behaving as the weather report predicted. Especially during the nights, it would change dramatically in strength and direction – suddenly changing over 40 or 50 degrees. During an overcast night, with no stars, moon or horizon, these wind changes can get you very disorientated. A lot of motor sailing had to be done, so we could make a decent speed towards Gold Coast – otherwise we’d spend many more days in the Tasman Sea, thus risking more unpredictable weather, more wear and tear, and also run out of food... and eventually, I could even miss my flight home.

The last two days there was a bit more action. Rain systems with beautiful rainbows, Milky Way and falling stars, a waterspout going our way, a warship VHFing a boat ordering them to stop immediately so they can get on board and “enforce Australian law”, a Black Hawk from another warship circling our boat (we asked them whether we could assist them, the answer was a negative). 

Sailing among rainbows in western Tasman
As we were running low on fuel, we decided to change to a lighter sail, a gennaker, during the last day. As the bowsprit is missing, we made it fast directly onto the bow, a solution that chafed through pretty soon but we managed to save the sail and set it again.

We were chasing our way to Gold Coast with some great gennaker sailing, but the rain clouds were chasing us! The wind picked up, and there was some fun to be had at the bow as we changed to genoa, and flew further. But then suddenly the wind dropped – and turned against us.

Cruising among dark clouds, wind changing to all possible directions...
This was a race against time – we had made an appointment with the customs as they drove all the way from another city to meet us up at the dock and clear in.

Finally, we got some good wind, and sailed into the glorious sunset to the sounds of Australian national anthem. I was frankly a bit unprepared to see land, and I got overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment and the epic views. It felt unreal. After everything that has happened - we’re finally here!

Sailing into the sunset on Gold Coast, Australia
We sailed into the seaway in the darkness, but there were people on the wall to meet us! With torches, honks and shouts they welcomed Ocean Gem back to its home port. An amazing welcome, another unreal and very heartwarming moment.

The last setback waited at the dock. It turned out that the Health and Quarantine inspector, despite being informed and prompted about our arrival, did not care to come out at this time. That meant we were stuck at the quarantine dock until some time tomorrow morning. For me, it did not really matter. But for our skipper, who had come home to his home port after being away at sea for 5 weeks, it was a bitter blow. Family and friends had come to meet him, and were standing on the dock arm ready to come on board, but because the boat was not cleared in by Quarantine they could not even give him a hug. That was heartbreaking to watch.

Finally there! Southport Yacht Club in Gold Coast.
We were finally cleared in by about 11 am on the 15th of April, and docked in front of Southport Yacht Club. Our skipper could get home, the crew were preparing for travelling further, and I was soon to make my way to the airport and go back home for this time. 

This sailing leg was 1681 nautical miles, and became a part of my continued circumnavigation. One of my top passages ever – I loved the adventure, the challenges and the new experiences. Once again, a pleasure and a privilege sailing with David on Ocean Gem. I will be back on the boat in December, competing in this year’s Sydney to Hobart – my second to go!