Even though it’s a 2000+ nm detour for most circumnavigators, New Zealand is a popular cruising destination.  In addition to providing a good place for boat repairs and offering natural and cultrual tourist attractions, it is almost completely out of the hurricane region of the South Pacific, making it a safe place to spend the hurricane season.

The passage there and back, however, has a bad reputation among sailors for being rough and potentially dangerous.  When to make the passage and how to approach it is a common topic among cruisers this time of year.  Although people who make the trip regularly or have a number of New Zealand passages under their belt seem to think it’s not too big of a deal, those of us who haven’t done it yet are all a little nervous.  We’ve spent several months in the reasonably-predictable tradewinds and sailing to such a high latitude is always more uncertain.

The weather worries have a couple of sources.  The first is that weather forecasts are usually only reliable for 3-5 days, after that, they’re much less accurate and anything over a week seems to be more like an educated guess.  Most boats make 100-150 nm a day and the passage to New Zealand is about 1000-1200 nm.  When heading southward, this means that you’re leaving the tradewinds and heading into the region of variable winds right around the time your departure weather forecast is getting stale, so can’t be sure what you’re going to get — calms, wind on the nose, a nice beam reach, or a SW gale.  The timing of the passage is also a topic of discussion.  The southern hemisphere seasons are changing from winter to summer.  If you leave too early, you’re pretty much guaranteed a stong SW winter gale at some point.  If you leave too late, you could be risking a hurriance either where you’re waiting to depart or possibly along the way.  Hurricanes in November are rare, but they do happen, especially in El Nino years (this is currently a weak El Nino period).  Winter storms are a guarantee in October, and summer weather starts to really settle in during December.  Although the conditions may be uncomfortable, they’re generally not unsafe, although there have been a few occasions when boats on passage to or from New Zealand were hit with very strong, unpredicted winds from a quick-forming tropical storm or a “squash zone” (compresed isobars and high winds between nearby low and high pressure zones).

Advice based on absolutely avoiding hurricanes says to leave by the beginning of November, but the experienced sailors we’ve talked to say that the better passages are made later, sometimes well into December, albeit with some hurricane risk.  It’s tempting to stay in beautiful and comfortable Vava’u, but we’re sticking with our original plan of leaving during the first week of November.  Our plan, like that of many others we’ve spoken to, is to use modern communications and weather forecasting to our advantage.  We’ll try to time our departure for a weather window that looks good, but we’ll also be updating our forecast information along the way.  If it looks like a gale is coming to the area north of New Zealand, we’ll drift, heave-to, or set our sea anchor for a couple of days and let it pass in front of us before continuing.  We’re also carrying plenty of fuel, changing the engine oil before leaving,  and we’ll be much more ready to motor if the winds are light or contrary.  We have roughly an 800 nm range under power, although hopefully we don’t have to motor anywhere near that much.

The weather forecast for the next week shows lots of wind on the nose south of the tradewinds — weak winds from a high and then strong SW winds as a low moves through.  We’re hoping that next week looks better.