New Caledonia’s Living Reef

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Like a galaxy of muti-hued stars, these coral polyps thrive on the reef in New Caledonia’s Natural Park of the Coral Sea. © Jeffrey Cardenas

I welcome visitors when I am sailing alone, even when those visitors are a curious pair of white tip reef sharks. They seem fascinated with the flash of my underwater camera. Sharks, being the alpha predators, always seem fearless — until they threatened by man, particularly those in this hemisphere who want to cut off their fins to make a bowl of soup. These white tips are a kinder, gentler predator. They seem to know that in this lagoon food is plentiful and they can swim without threat.

New Caledonia is internationally renowned for its exceptional natural beauty, rich biodiversity, and remarkable coral reefs. The Natural Park of the Coral Sea protects 502,000 square miles of the southwest Pacific islands. It is sanctuary for sharks, whales and turtles. New Caledonia is also home to one of the world’s largest populations of dugong, the last remaining marine mammal on earth that eats strictly plants. These creatures live in a lagoon circled by an epic 618-mile long coral reef. To summarize the superlatives, this tiny, French semiautonomous territory of New Caledonia boasts one of the largest nature reserve on earth.

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All images are of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea. © Jeffrey Cardenas

Paradoxically, New Caledonia’s maritime sanctuary is measured against the country’s unremarkable environmental record on land. As I swim with the sharks and turtles and tropical fish over the shallow coral reef inside the lagoon at Ilot Maître, it is possible to look back at the mainland and see the scars of strip mining. New Caledonia has one of the largest economies in the South Pacific. It is home to a quarter of the world’s known nickel reserves. The foreign dollars earned from nickel mining and smelting account for more than 90% of all exports. It explains the affluence of New Caledonia when compared to its neighbors in the South Pacific. But the wealth has come at a price. Strip mining in the 1970s turned once lush valleys rust red in color and sliced off entire mountaintops. Mining techniques and regulations have improved since then but in the past decade there have still been several serious leaks of acidic effluent flowing directly into this UNESCO World Heritage site.

There are other challenges to this pristine maritime environment. Despite there being literally thousands of boats moored in several modern marinas in New Caledonia, there are few if any functioning sanitary pump out stations in the entire country. Most sewage goes directly into the water. Enforcing the sanctuary’s well-intentioned marine regulations in an area twice the size of Texas is hardly possible with the limited resources here to police it.

Tourism is underdeveloped in New Caledonia with a little more than 100,000 visitors a year, compared to neighboring Fiji where tourism numbers are approaching 900,000 annually. This seems surprising considering the attraction of New Caledonia’s unique natural habitat of 3,700 species of plants, 114 species of birds and 143 species of reptiles. Over 80% of these species are found nowhere else on earth. Its lagoon is a thriving nursery for 25 kinds of marine mammals (including dugongs and humpback whales), 48 species of shark and five different marine turtles.

New Caledonia is proud of its 2019 tourism advertising campaign titled, “Feel The Pulse Of New Cal.” That pulse is clearly in the natural habitat of this island with its spectacular lagoon. Nature is the carotid artery, the life blood of New Caledonia. At some point in the future, as the nickel and other minerals in the land are depleted, the marine environment will be what sustains this beautiful island.

Follow the initiative of groups like Conversation International and the Pew Trust that focus on New Caledonia’s marine environment.

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A white tip reef shark passes by to welcome Flying Fish to the Natural Park of the Coral Sea. © Jeffrey Cardenas

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A New Neighbor in Nouméa

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HMB Endeavour, an exact replica of the first ship Capt. James Cook commanded when he charted the Pacific, arrived in Nouméa, New Caledonia this week after having twice circumnavigated the globe. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Walking along the wide planked decks of the Endeavour replica, one has the sense of treading two worlds.

There is this vessel, a working reproduction that recently arrived in Nouméa, a tall ship that has twice navigated the globe. And then there is the ship she represents, the HMS Endeavour, launched more than 250 years ago that carried Capt. James Cook and a crew of 94 on an epic voyage of discovery around the world. 

Cook departed England in 1768, ordered to the South Seas to observe the Transit of Venus and to secretly search for the fabled Great Southern Continent (Terra Australis Incognita). The HMS Endeavour rounded Cape Horn east to west against the Roaring Forties and then sailed into the Pacific bound for Tahiti. Cook returned to England by way of South Africa after two years and 11 months, having travelled some 30,000 miles and charted over 5,000 miles of coastline.

“Cook not only redrew the map of the world, creating a picture of the globe much like the one we know today” writes historian Tony Horwitz, “he also transformed the West’s image of nature and man.”

The replica of Cook’s ship is no tourist boat. Construction of the Endeavour replica began in Australia in 1988 and the ship was launched 5 years later. Since her commissioning she has sailed over 170,000 nautical miles–more than five times the distance sailed by James Cook on the original HMS Endeavour.

The Endeavour replica was built using surveys and plans archived by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. The timbers are of jarrah, a West Australian hardwood with spars from old-growth Douglas fir. The ship’s traditional iron fittings, including lanterns and the large iron firehearth, were handmade in a specially installed blacksmith shop. Traditional manila was used for the standing rigging, handmade on a 140-year-old ropewalk to the exact specifications of the original rope. The necessary concessions to the 21st century–engines, generators, an electric galley, showers, and safety equipment–are all hidden away in the cargo hold where Cook stored his ship’s provisions.

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In over 200 voyages aboard the Endeavour replica some 8,000 men and women have been able to experience 18th-century seamanship and see how Cook and his men lived. Hundreds of others have joined day sails in harbors and rivers around the world, and many more have worked as guides and volunteers.

With Flying Fish currently undergoing repairs in Nouméa, I was invited by Shipping Agent Chloé Morin to help a group of fourth graders from Nouméa’s Paul Duboisé elementary school tour the Endeavour replica. The children were wide-eyed at the 100-foot, 400-ton ship. The Endeavour was built for endurance, not speed or comfort. It  bluff-bowed and wide beamed with an average sailing speed of 2.5 knots. The ship has been described (unkindly) by one historian as “A cross between a clog and a coffin.”

Endeavour’s Master John Dikkenberg, showed off his ship with enthusiasm to the children. The two areas that most fascinated the kids, Capt. Dikkenberg said, were the sitting boards hanging outboard with holes in them used during the Cook era as toilets (from which one unfortunate seaman plummeted into the ocean while underway), and the flogging rack. “Were sailors really whipped?” one young girl asked Capt. Dikkenberg. “With a cat o’ nine tails,” he replied, and he invited a boy to spread eagle on the rack, much to the delight of his fellow students.

Capt. James Cook’s mission was a voyage of science and discovery, and his legacy continues in the voyages of the Endeavour replica. Who knows in which student this spark of adventure may eventually alight. I know as the passage of Flying Fish crosses the wake of both Endeavours that my adventure is greater for having known their stories.

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The rig of the HMB Endeavour carries over 10,000 square feet of canvas with 17 sails. © Jeffrey Cardenas

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And Then This Happened

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Setting up preventer lines on the rough downwind run to the Coral Sea. © Jeffrey Cardenas

Sleep is a rare pleasure on singlehanded passages and I was deep into a blissful state of REM on the comfortable salon berth of Flying Fish when the cabin around me seemingly exploded from within.

The crash was of such intensity it was as if I had been struck hard by a heavy truck. Still in a dream, I thought how is this possible? I should be floating on water, in an ocean 10,000 feet deep. Instead I awoke to a sound unlike anything I have ever heard on the ocean. First there was first a roar followed immediately by impact and detonation. Then, onto my sleepy head, came an awful shower of broken glass, canned food, cookware, and a drawer full of cutlery.

Flying Fish had been knocked down–mast to the surface of the water–rolled broadside by a wave that must have transcended by multiples any wave I had seen since my departure from New Zealand three days earlier.

An abnormal wave is rare. For years “rogue waves” were thought to be mythical, almost embarrassing to talk about, movie stuff. But, abnormal waves have been scientifically recorded. They are real, unpredictable, and they impact anything in their path with a tremendous and unstoppable force.

When I had gone below to rest some 30 minutes earlier, the wind was a moderate 20 knots and the boat sailing smoothly on a broad reach. The mainsail was double reefed, the jib was furled, and a staysail was rigged on the inner forestay. The sea was rough but manageable with a 6 to 8-foot swell from the east. The autopilot was working effortlessly with minimal weather helm. Radar, AIS, and a visual check showed no shipping traffic. Alarms were set.  The satellite forecast GRIB weather files indicated no change for the next 24 hours. It was the perfect time for a short snooze.

After the wave broke, Flying Fish rolled upright and I dug out of the debris field inside the cabin. My first instinct was to move toward light and air and get topside before another wave broke over the boat. But there was no other wave. The sea and wind conditions were the same as they had been 30 minutes earlier–except that Flying Fish was now wallowing in the foaming wash of the wave. The cockpit was full of water, hundreds of gallons. The canvas weather enclosure (custom built in New Zealand only a month ago) was in tatters. Cockpit cushions gone. Engine gauges underwater. And on the deck a 5-gallon jug of diesel had opened spreading a sheen of fuel oil and noxious fumes across the boat.

Flying Fish is a sturdy vessel. It is a 46′ Island Packet, a traditional cutter with a full keel, 32,000 pounds of displacement, and lots of fiberglass. What Flying Fish may lack in speed and sex appeal compared to modern racing sailboats, it more than makes up for in safety and security. I bought the boat specifically for its high rating of something called the “righting moment.” Simplified, the righting moment is the ability of sailboat to recover from a roll. Some boats will recover and some will not. Flying Fish recovered, which is why I am able to write these words.

While this knockdown was not an emergency situation, it was an event that captured my undivided attention. The initial reaction (after I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and realized this was not a nightmare) was one of: What First?

Priority One was to get nearly a ton of the water out of the cockpit and regain buoyancy. An errant t-shirt had clogged one of the cockpit drains. Next I checked the bilge. It was dry, although 10 gallons of seawater was sloshing around the engine compartment (how did it get in there?) I knew I would have to get the engine started soon. The ports and hatches were all dogged and secured. The broken glass in the cabin, I am chagrined to say, was from improperly stowed glasses and plates (I just can’t drink fine wine out of plastic glasses). And there was more good news: The rig was intact. Torque from a mast and boom going into the water can be severe enough to rip the rig out of the deck. Amazingly, I was still sailing. The autopilot, God bless her inanimate soul, was holding course.

Then came the clean up. Because it had been such a passive passage to date, and because the forecast was for it to remain so, I was lackadaisical with my stowage. Imagine taking a full kitchen drawer and dumping it on the floor. Then imagine taking all of the kitchen drawers–and the contents of the cabinets–and throwing them into the mix. This is what the cabin of Flying Fish looked like. It might have been humorous until I saw a deep gouge in an interior bulkhead caused by impact from my cast iron griddle. The griddle had been stored under the stove where it had lived for more than 10,000 miles. But on this knockdown it somehow flew out and up with great velocity, across the entire cabin, passing inches over my head where I lay sleeping in the salon.

If the initial reaction to an event like this is What First, what follows logically is What Next?

I had been en route from Opua, New Zealand to Port Denauru, Fiji. Wind and seas were on the beam. I tried to understand the cause of this abnormal wave, and what the chance was of it happening again. In nearly a half a century of sailing and working on fishing boats I had never before encountered anything like this. Bob McDavitt’, one of New Zealand’s passage weather gurus likes to say, “Weather is a mix of pattern and chaos.” With careful planning ocean passages can be reasonably predictable, but I wanted to avoid more unpredictable chaos. So I turned downwind and down sea, diverting from a landfall in Fiji to one further west in New Caledonia. If Flying Fish was going to take another wave, she was going to take it on the backside where it wouldn’t hurt as much.

Lessons learned? Plenty.

I know that I cannot run before the wind and waves for the entire next 24,000 miles of my return passage to Key West. The ocean will often be rough and the seas will frequently be striking Flying Fish amidships. If I am going to sleep in these conditions I will need to heave to into the wind before I leave the helm. Also, I cannot be lazy about the proper stowage of PFOs (Potential Flying Objects) down below. When I sail again, I will look at my cabin with an eye to what will break free if the boat rolls 90 degrees, or worse. Finally, the cockpit needs to be an uncluttered environment. How humiliating it would have been for Flying Fish to founder because the cockpit drain was clogged with a dirty t-shirt I had tossed in the corner.

Ultimately, I need to better understand the inherent risk of this adventure. If a person walks in the rain they face the chance of being struck by lightning. If a person sails offshore they face the risk of encountering something as unpredictable as an abnormal wave. The alternative is to sit at home and watch reality TV. That’s not going work for me.

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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019

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Two Seas and Ancient Spirits

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At Cape Rēinga on the northern end of New Zealand, where water from the Tasman Sea mixes with the Pacific Ocean, Māori spirits depart to the underworld. Photography: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Cape Rēinga at the top of New Zealand is one of the great headlands of Oceania. It was used as a waypoint by the earliest Polynesian sailors, ancestors to Māori, on their voyages of exploration. It is off this point of land that the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east meet in a tumultuous mixing of counter currents and confused seas.

And it is this landmass that will be my final view of New Zealand as Flying Fish sails north tomorrow en route to Fiji.

Like so much of New Zealand, Cape Rēinga is rich in Māori tradition. According to legend, these turbulent waters are where the male engendered sea, Te Moana Tāpokopoko a Tāwhaki, meets a female body of water called Te Taio Whitirela. Their love affair arouses a dance of whirlpools and currents that initiate the Māori creation of life.

But just as there is love and life in the meeting of these seas, there is also a specter of death. For Maori, Cape Rēinga means the leaping-off place of spirits. It is Māori belief that the cape is the point where the spirit of the dead enter the underworld.

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In mythology, these spirits travel to Cape Rēinga on a final journey to the afterlife, then leap off the headland from the roots of an 800-year-old pōhutukawa tree. That tree exists today. Its roots tenaciously cling to bare rock just above the breaking seas. According to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, pōhutukawa are known for their brilliant red flowers, but this particular tree–growing out of the rock where the spirit of the dead enter the underworld–has never flowered.

Visitors who journey to the cape are asked not to eat, drink, or smoke out of respect for this sacred place. And, it is not only humans who journey to Cape Rēinga. Just below the mystical pōhutukawa tree is Scratching Rock where whales sometimes enter the bay to rub their flanks against dark red rocks formed by undersea volcanic eruptions.

Maōri had occupied this land hundreds of years before explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman dropped anchor looking to replenish his ship’s fresh water supply. On the eve of Epiphany in 1643, Tasman named a group of rocky islets he encountered as the Three Kings Islands. But these rocks already had a name. Historian Percy Smith wrote that a Maōri chief named Rauru, once swam across the treacherous 50-mile passage from Cape Rēinga to one of the islands. In the state of exhaustion upon his arrival Rauru named the island Manama Tāwhi, Maōri meaning “panting breath.”

Cape Rēinga is said to be the most sacred place in New Zealand. It is a landscape of death and rebirth, a tableau of creation and destruction. As a foreigner I will never understand the full spiritual significance of this place but I will always have a personal connection here. In New Zealand that connection is known as Hawaiki. It is both a mythical location and a template for everything that is good, powerful, and benevolent in the world. Hawaiki is where fullness of life is envisioned and experienced. This helps me to understand a little more clearly why I wander the world in search of places like Cape Rēinga.

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This is the exact moment when the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. In Maōri tradition this is the encounter, seduction, and conception of two spiritual entities. Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

 

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The New Zealand Fern

Silver ferns, with their leaves turned upward to reflect moonlight, helped Māori hunters and warriors to find their path homeward. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

As I begin this long goodbye to New Zealand I am focused on the ocean passage ahead. Yet, in these final weeks ashore, I am also inexorably drawn back to the terra firma of this lovely country.

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New Zealand’s ferns are an iconic symbol of this country. To Pākehā (New Zealanders of non-Māori descent), the fern symbolizes a sense of attachment to their homeland. It represents the national identity of this country. The symbol was first used in the 19th Century by New Zealand troops fighting in South Africa and it continued to be used to identify New Zealand units during both world wars and subsequent conflicts. All Commonwealth war graves of fallen New Zealand soldiers have the silver fern engraved on their tombstones.

To Māori, the elegant shape of the fronds stands for strength, stubborn resistance, and enduring power. There are hundreds of varieties of ferns in New Zealand. Ferns were used by Māori for their medicinal properties. The mouki and parako were used for skin rash, kiwakiwa was chewed to alleviate a sore mouth or tongue, the root of rahurahu was used to prevent seasickness. The silver frond of the ponga has long been used for marking tracks in the bush, springy leaves of waewaekoukou form a good bush mattress, and stems were used by Māori as a binding twine for making eel traps.

The magnificent silver fern is a variety of tree fern found only in New Zealand. It grows to over 10 meters high in the verdant forests on both islands. Māori hunters and warriors used the silver underside of the fern leaves to find their way home. When bent over, the fronds would catch the moonlight and illuminate a path through the forest.

According to Māori legend, the silver fern once lived in the sea until the plant with its sacred power entered the forest to help guide the Māori people on their travels.

At the navigation station aboard Flying Fish, I have placed a silver fern leaf next to the compass. It is a talisman that I hope will also help guide me on the long journey home.

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Fiddlehead, the new growth of a New Zealand fern.

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Beach Tramping New Zealand

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Ginny Stones wanders along an isolated beach track on Moturua Island. Photograph © Jeffrey Cardenas

New Zealand has more than 15,000 kilometers of coastline bordered by the Southern Ocean, the Tasman Sea, and the Pacific Ocean. James Cook mapped the entire coastline. My explorations have been more modest.

Flying Fish arrived in the Bay of Islands five months ago. Much of the time here was devoted to refitting and repairs. The tradesmen and services for ocean-going voyagers are excellent in Opua. Once the work was done, I took off my shoes and began wandering the many beachside tracks of the Bay of Islands.

These are not the sugar sand beaches of Polynesia shaded by coconut palms. New Zealand is recently born geologically. Evidence of volcanic activity, earthquakes, and geothermal areas can be seen throughout the landscape, especially along the shoreline. The beaches vary dramatically from cold fiords in the South Island to towering hot sand dunes in the north. For the most ambitious walkers the Te Araroa Trail is a 3,000 kilometer route of spectacular New Zealand landscapes featuring beaches and volcanoes, forests and cities. The walking track stretches from Cape Reinga on the North Island to Bluff on the South Island.

A person could spend a lifetime walking in New Zealand, but aboard Flying Fish I am beginning to feel the pull of time and tide. Winter is fast approaching. In the coming month as the cyclone season ends in the South Pacific, I will watch for a weather window that will provide safe passage for Flying Fish over the next horizon.

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Below, a meditative ebb and flow along New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. Add a little volume and enjoy the sound of the shoreline.

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After Christchurch

Comfort in Nature

New Zealand is in mourning.

This is a country that has become insulated to the incidents of mass murder that are commonplace in so many other parts of the world. For reasons of isolation, or politics, or simply its tolerance of other human beings, New Zealand is a sanctuary from hate.

And then hate appeared in the doorway of a house of worship with a semi-automatic weapon.

How does one reckon with such unexpected tragedy?

Prime Minister Jacinta Arden has been praised for her leadership in the aftermath of the shooting. She said that although many of the victims of the shooting are migrants, “New Zealand is their home. They are us.”

She said New Zealanders were not chosen for this act of terror because they condone racism but rather that they represent diversity, kindness, compassion, and a refuge for those who need it. “And those values, I can assure you, will not and cannot be shaken by this attack,” she said.

For those of us who are visitors in this country, especially those of us who come from a nation where mass shootings have become frequent, there is a feeling of profound sadness. In those  15 minutes of sustained gunfire in Christchurch it was as if the innocence of an entire nation had been lost.

New Zealanders, however, will respond with typical strength. Christchurch was magnificently rebuilt following the devastating 2011 earthquake. It will recover from this tragedy, too. All of New Zealand will heal again.

But on this day, the sky is dark in Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019

All rights reserved

New Zealand Harvest

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Omata Estate Vineyard Manager Sarah Cashmore harvests the 2019 Pinot Gris grapes in Russell, New Zealand. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019

In the cool autumn air of New Zealand’s Northland wine country the Omata Estate Pinot Gris grapes have reached a perfect sugar content of 23° Brix. It is time to harvest. Sailors from the Russell community, and international vagabonds such as the crew of Flying Fish, have been invited to help with the harvest. Considering the amount of wine that sailors consume, this is not hardship duty.

At 7:30 AM, Vineyard Manager Sarah Cashmore summons the group of about 18 pickers and dispenses essential tools of the trade–razor sharp cutting shears and a large box of “plasters”, known in America as Band-Aids. “We’ll take a break in a couple of hours for tea and cakes,” she says, “and then a vineyard meal will be served after the harvest.” Our cadre of grape pickers include backpackers and grandparents. We are now all officially Woofers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms), or laborers who are happy to work for their supper.

Omata Estate is a small family vineyard producing about 8,000 bottles annually from harvests of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Syrah. The vines are nurtured by the sea breezes off the Bay of Islands and long hours of New Zealand sunshine. Each of the varieties has been planted in carefully selected sites within the vineyard to maximize the individual microclimates. All of the vines are carefully tended by hand and the resulting wines are full-bodied and stunning. The grapes we pick today will be blended to make Omata Estate’s delicious Rosé and Sparkling wines. 

After the last clusters of Pinot Gris grapes are clipped and put into the harvesting baskets we Woofers amble up to Omata’s outdoor kitchen with its spectacular views overlooking vineyard and bay. Gourmet food including local produce platters, artisanal cheeses, and wood-fired pizza overflow the tables of the outdoor kitchen. Sarah announces that our Pinot Gris harvest is 4.5 metric tonnes, a record for Omata Estate. She then stacks the tables with bottles of the vineyard’s finest vintages. We are happy Woofers and with our nipped fingers taped in bright blue plasters we toast a job well done.

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Anglican Ash Wednesday

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The graveyard surrounding New Zealand’s oldest church in Russell tells the story of life and death upon the sea. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

With Flying Fish secure at anchor in Te Wahapu Bay near the New Zealand township of Russell, I am feeling especially blessed as a priest in the Anglican Christ Church prints a mark of ashes across my forehead.

In this lovely old church, history comes alive from the earliest years of Māori and European contact in the Bay of Islands. Musket holes from the 1845 war between them still mark the exterior of the church. Russell, then called by its original Māori name of Kororāreka, was a rough seaport known as “The Hellhole of the Pacific.” Brothels and grog shops lined the waterfront. Gunshots could be heard across the bay.

Missionaries felt that Kororāreka needed a little bit of religion. They purchased land in 1834 from Māori chiefs and agreed that Māori and Europeans should have equal rights of burial. The fundraising subscription list for the church still survives with names of missionaries, settlers, traders, and explorers including Captain Robert Fitzroy and Charles Darwin of H.M.S. Beagle.

Legend has it that Kororāreka is named after a soup made from the little blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) which was given to a Māori chief wounded in battle. Feeling better, he was believed to have said, “Ka reka te korora – How sweet is the penguin,” leading to the town’s name. Today, little blue penguins still come ashore after dark on the beach at Russell to nest under the floorboards of waterfront buildings.

Among the graves in the churchyard are those of Tamati Waka Nene (a Ngapuhi chief largely responsible for the Māori’s acceptance of the Treaty of Waitangi and peace with the Europeans), Hannah King Letheridge (the second European girl to be born in New Zealand, despite her grave marker stating she was “The First White Woman Born In New Zealand”), and men from H.M.S. Hazard who fell in the battle in 1845.

But on this day as the Anglican priest dips his finger into a glass bowl of ashes–the charred remains of local New Zealand palms–and presses a cross over my bowed forehead he says, “From dust you came, and from dust you will return.”

I understand these earthly sentiments of the Anglican Ash Wednesday but my feelings of mortality fall more in line with a verse written on the original oak headstone of the perished seamen from H.M.S. Hazard. Situated on the grounds of Christ Church in Russell, it marks the final resting place of six men who died defending the town formerly known as Kororāreka.

On that headstone are the words of 19th century poet Felicia Hermans: “Go, stranger! Track the deep. Free, free the white sail spread! Wave may not foam, nor wild wind sweep…”

Undine

The 123-year-old gaff-rigged cutter Undine ghosts across the Bay of Islands near Russell. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

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Wind in my Sails

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Flying Fish, just out of the boatyard and sailing again in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

According to the ship’s log it is exactly 112 days and 10 hours since the sails of Flying Fish were last filled with wind.

Flying Fish has undergone a series of maintenance and repair projects that have kept her lashed to the dock and in the boatyard since her landfall in Opua, New Zealand last October. She needed a little lovin’ after the 10,000-mile passage from Key West. It has been too much time away from the water. Today Flying Fish once again spreads her wings.

The tropical cyclone season continues in the South Pacific so for another several months my passages will remain close to the safe harbor of Opua. This week I’ll sail among New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. In 100 square miles there are nearly 150 islands, some with fascinating historical antecedents.

Researchers believe large Māori migration canoes journeyed to the Bay of Islands a millennium ago from Hawaiki, the mythical home for the Polynesians dispersing across the Pacific. Captain James Cook landed here in 1769 and while he hunkered down waiting out a series of gales he charted and named the Bay of Islands. It was the first area in New Zealand to be settled by Europeans. The Māori provided the early settlers with and abundance of fresh produce and fish. The Europeans reciprocated with guns, alcohol, and venereal disease. Whalers arrived towards the end of the 18th century, and the first missionaries settled in 1814.

The missionaries and whalers did not cohabitate well. By the 1830s the settlement of Kororareka in the Bay of Islands was known as the “Hell Hole of the Pacific.” Dozens of whaleships anchored in the Bay of Islands, many of which had been at sea for over a year. Canoes filled with Māori women, “many naked and covered with fish oil” swarmed the boats to barter their favors for gunpowder and tobacco. Ashore, vagabonds, runaway sailors, and convicts bloodied each other in the crowded grog shops and brothels that lined the waterfront.

In 1835 Charles Darwin visited the Bay of Islands in HMS Beagle and left with the opinion that the European residents who had settled here were “the very refuse of society.” He described it as “the land of cannibalism, murder, and all atrocious crimes.” However, according to historian Richard Wolfe, before he departed the Bay of Islands Darwin donated £15 to fund the building of a new church. It was an ironic gesture coming from a man who would go on to publish The Origin of the Species, a treatise that would shake the foundations of Christianity.

Eventually, missionaries established a settlement a few kilometers across the bay in Paihia. Church hymns could be heard on the missionary side of the bay while gunshots echoed across the water from the Hell Hole of the Pacific.

I drop the anchor of Flying Fish in the lee of Urupukapuka Island. The water is turquoise and crystal clear. New Zealand’s Park Service maintains walking trails across the island that feature stunning panoramic views, beaches, and verdant forests abundant with native vegetation and rare birds. There are also archaeological ruins here, including the remains of author Zane Grey’s fishing camp in Otehei Bay. Grey arrived in 1926 and described the waters off the Bay of Islands as an “Angler’s Eldorado,” rich in billfish and tuna. His son Loren Grey once said that his father fished 300 days a year.

Born Pearl Gray (he later changed Pearl to Zane and Gray to Grey), Zane Grey published more than 90 books which sold in excess of 40 million copies. Over 100 films have been based upon his works. But on Urupukpuka Grey’s luxury lifestyle in the 1920s, as the worldwide economic depression loomed, chafed the local New Zealanders. He and his wealthy companions were considered the original glampers. It was said that when Grey caught a big fish he’d pull out a megaphone to announce his catch as he approached shore in his launch. Nonetheless, Grey is widely credited today with playing a major part in the foundation of New Zealand’s modern sport fishing industry. In Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado, Grey said, “The New Zealand coast is destined to become the most famous of all fishing waters. It will bring the best anglers from all over the world.”

I feel as if I am a time traveller as I sail among the the Bay of Islands. The Hell Hole of the Pacific, now named Russell, has been gentrified with chic shops, art galleries, and cafés. Offshore the New Zealand Millennium Cup is underway. Billed as the South Pacific’s premier superyacht regatta it features racing sailboats 160 feet long. The entry fee alone for this race is $5,400. On the ruins of Zane Grey’s fishing camp a group of Japanese tourists with mosquito net hats and bird binoculars chitter about while pop music plays and a server brings them burgers and beer.

It’s a little too much commotion for this solitary sailor. I tack offshore, trimming the sails to look for a quieter anchorage. I prefer to migrate toward a more simple existence where nature dictates the rules. Or as Zane Grey once said (presumably without a megaphone) “I need this wild life, this freedom.” 

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A panoramic view of Okahu Passage in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019

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