I awake in darkness and silence and almost imperceptible motion. The boat rocks and bobs an inch or two. On land, even such small movement would be cause for alarm, but on a mooring, boats are always alive like this.
At first light, I summon the will to leave my warm cocoon of bedding, wrapping myself in a sleeping bag for the five steps I take to reach my clothes in the main cabin. High pressure and clear skies have finally followed the worst spring storm that New Zealand’s seen in decades; it was caused by a giant low that sat in the Southern Ocean for a week, and the storm brought snow at lambing season, which decimated flocks. Clear nights are cool nights, and the pre-dawn cabin is 41 F, which is about as cold as it ever gets in the Bay of Islands.
Cool air against bare skin burns, but not for long.
Scandinavians tell me that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only improper clothing. I could add long underwear, but Levi’s and Polartec are enough until the sun brings warmth, though I do sometimes use a sleeping bag as a lap robe. Even in midwinter the temperature usually rises above 55 F, and today, in early October springtime, it will reach into the 60s F.
Dressed, I step to the companionway.
This morning, I’m facing the mountain to the east. Only 2,000 feet high, it’s small for a mountain but too big to be a hill in this country of hills. It’s sometimes shrouded by fog or cloud; this morning, its silhouette is razor sharp. One of the great pleasures of life on my mooring is watching light and shadow change on hills and water during the day.
A quarter of a mile away, silhouetted against the rising sun, is tiny, gumdrop-shaped Pine Tree Island.
The story is that early last century, a local settler planted seven pine trees on the islet, one for each of his children. He and they are dead now, but each time I look that way, I remember his loving gesture. And the roots of those trees are all that still holds the eroding island together.
A quarter of a mile in the other direction lies Opua Marina, the company from which I bought my mooring six years ago, after sailing across the Tasman Sea following the completion of my fourth circumnavigation in Sydney, Australia. I paid the duty on The Hawke of Tuonela, too, so that I don’t have to take her out of the country every year, although I’ve sailed to French Polynesia and back, to Tonga and Fiji and back, and made an 18-month fifth circumnavigation since then. Often during that circumnavigation, I missed my mooring and wished I were back on it. I’ve found unexpected contentment here. But contentment isn’t enough, and after a while I find myself thinking of the open ocean again.
Changes for the Good
Opua is a place that’s improved with development.
Before the opening of the marina in the 1990s, sailors who wanted to clear in with officials had to tie up to the old pier, whose pilings were intended for commercial craft, not sailboats. Although some visiting yachts remained at anchor off the Opua Cruising Club, when I arrived here, I didn’t. As soon as formalities were over, I left and went three miles back north to anchor off the town of Russell.
Now the marina’s outer breakwater is perhaps the world’s easiest-to-approach quarantine dock. And the marina and shore businesses provide welcomed services, even to those of us on moorings or out at anchor: showers, laundry, a pleasant café, and several wireless Internet connections that reach my mooring, albeit with a special antenna. Everything you need is here, except an A.T.M.
The Bay of Islands is like a funnel whose seven-mile-wide mouth is open to the northeast, between Cape Wiwiki and Cape Brett, and whose spout is bent 60 degrees to the south, between the towns of Paihia and Russell. Opua is at the tip of that spout, and my mooring is, for me—I’m someone who enjoys a bit of distance from land—perfectly situated near the center of the basin, which is usually as smooth as the landlocked lake it resembles. Points overlap a mile to the north, so the circle of green hills seems continuous.
Hills are important to those of us who live some of the time in the flatlands, as I do, in a suburb of Chicago where there isn’t a hill within 50 miles. In a little while, I’ll row ashore and walk up and down those hills the four miles to Paihia to shop and have lunch. An inexpensive taxi service is available during the summer, but I walk because I like the trek over three seriously steep hills and valleys.
One can follow a trail along the water’s edge or take the inland road. My favorite route follows the road for the first two hills and then, if the tide’s out, the water’s edge around the last. Either way, I walk beside fern forests, whose sweet and spicy smells vary so that I could know where I am with my eyes closed, and enjoy spectacular views of the bay, from near or on high.
I like to use my aging body. Walking, climbing hills, rowing, hauling water, working on the boat: Mooring life is a good life.
I take the quiet and pure air on my mooring for granted.
A few hundred people live on the hillsides around Opua. A couple of thousand are in Paihia. Another thousand live across the bay around Russell. The economy is based on tourism, farming, and fishing. There’s no industry within at least 50 miles, maybe more than 100. There aren’t even any through roads around the Opua basin. There’s only one on each shore leading to the car ferry, half a mile north of my mooring. At night, the darkness to the east is broken by the lights of fewer than a dozen homes.
I stop writing and listen.
The flag flaps. Water ripples. Then a tern screeches like a rusty old hinge.
One of the pleasures of life on my mooring is an evening drink on deck, usually accompanied by music on the cockpit speakers.
My mooring is on the edge of the mooring field, and on Wednesdays and Fridays during the summer, entertainment is provided by Opua Cruising Club races. The start line is 100 yards north of me.
When I don’t have races to watch, I have birds: terns, cormorants—shags, to New Zealanders—gulls, ducks, gannets. The ducks beg; the gulls squabble and steal; the gannets hunt honorably.
The setting sun is often spectacular. Many evenings, it turns the world gold. The mountain to the east. The sky. The water. The Hawke of Tuonela and all the other boats.
I’d always rather be on a mooring or at anchor than in a marina, and I only take Hawke to the shore when I need work to be done.
I fill jerricans with water at the Opua Cruising Club dinghy dock, then row them back out. I fill the occasional jerrican with diesel at the fuel dock. The Hawke of Tuonela herself hasn’t been to a fuel dock since 2003.
I row those jerricans in the latest of half a dozen Avon Redstart inflatables that I’ve owned over the decades. I recall that the very first cost $250 new. (All figures are in U.S. currency.) I have no experience of using an outboard on an inflatable, but if you want to row, Avon’s oarlocks are the best.
This is the first Redstart I’ve bought since Avon was taken over by Zodiac. Fortunately, the basic design has remained little changed. On the plus side, Avon now includes floorboards in the base price, which I like, and the outboard bracket, which to me is irrelevant. However, the quality of the fabric and construction seem to me less strong than before. The Redstart is still my dinghy of choice, but this one shows more wear after three years than did previous versions I’ve owned.
I also own a small rigid dinghy for the last row in before I fly back to the United States and the first row out when I return. I’d say that this vessel rows like a pig, but that’d be an insult to pigs. Its virtues are that it cost $65, is light enough for me to pick up and carry on my shoulder to and from the marina dinghy rack, and can be locked to that rack, as an inflatable can’t be.
In many, if not most, harbors, I’m the only rower. Not in Opua. While those using outboards here are in the majority, a lot of other people row here, even occasionally another American.
On a mooring, there’s better ventilation, fewer insects, unobstructed views, and quiet, and a boat swings with the wind and tide.
When I want to change that view, I have only to drop my mooring and dodge the car ferries, and in an hour or two I have my choice of anchorages along the mainland of New Zealand’s North Island or at one of the many other small islands for which Captain Cook named this bay.
I consider the local cruising ground to extend from Whangaroa, a 40-mile sail north and west around Cape Wiwiki, to Whangamumu, a 25-mile sail east around Cape Brett and south. (The pronunciation of “wh” at the start of a Maori word is identical to the sound represented in written English by the letter “f.”) Both of these are beautiful and well-protected harbors; Whangaroa opens up for three miles after a 200-yard-wide entrance that’s obviously best avoided at full tide, and Whangamumu is a former whaling station.
But there are almost countless closer choices inside the bay itself. Depending on wind direction, my favorites are Roberton Island, where I can row ashore and follow a path up through the forest to a spectacular lookout, and Paradise Bay, at Urupukapuka Island, which has a wonderful view of the sun setting over islands to the west and a fine sand bottom from which anchors come up clean.
Roberton is exposed to the south, Paradise Bay to the west. If the wind comes from those directions, I have only to move a mile or less to find another cove or bay that’s protected.
In summer, I seldom have an anchorage to myself, although only during the Christmas and Easter school holidays are any really crowded. At other times of the year, I usually do.
These islands and the coast beyond a few enclaves are essentially unpopulated, with only isolated houses. The scenery is spectacular. Cliffs and hills dive into the sea. Parts remind me of California’s Big Sur, and some views inside Whangaroa recall Yosemite Valley.
In Terms of Money
What does access to this version of paradise cost me?
I paid about $2,000 for my mooring. It’s worth more now.
Tides at Opua are usually in the six-foot range, and my mooring usually sits in 25 to 30 feet of water.
The base is a three-ton chunk of concrete. To this are attached 16 feet of one-and-a-half-inch chain, 16 feet of three-quarter-inch chain, 10 feet of five-eighths-inch chain, and 30 feet of one-inch line.
Although 60 knots is the strongest wind I’ve experienced, reportedly more than 70 knots have hit while I’ve been away, and The Hawke of Tuonela, which isn’t heavy or hard on anchors or moorings, remained safe.
I pay an annual mooring fee to the Northland Regional Council of about $100. And I have to pay for a mooring inspection and necessary replacements every three years. Last time, this came to $600. This time, I expect it’ll be less.
I also pay for a full membership in the Opua Cruising Club, whose dinghy dock I use; the O.C.C. is the only organization of which I’m a willing member. This costs about $100 annually. Temporary memberships for visiting yachts are available for less.
I don’t claim that my mooring is the best in the world or that the Bay of Islands is the world’s best cruising ground. Only that there are none better.
What, you think yours is better? Tell us why and win a party!
Frequent CW contributor Webb Chiles is the author of seven books, several of which are available on Kindle. Keep up with him at his website.