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38 South - Marlin 695 Series 2 - LEADERBOARD

Journey home across the Tasman Sea caps off a life-altering experience

by Denby Browning 21 Sep 05:47 UTC

South Australian adventurers Russell Bianco and Gabriella Gabanna spent time last year exploring the wonders of New Zealand after a voyage of more than a thousand nautical miles aboard their Riviera 52 Enclosed Flybridge Majesnik crossing the Tasman Sea from the east coast of Australia. Russell recounts the couple's classic blue-water adventure as they headed home.

After six weeks exploring New Zealand's breathtaking South Island, we were happy to be home aboard Majesnik and immediately began to prepare ourselves and her for a voyage home to Australia.

We organised to have Majesnik serviced by the team at R Marine Flagship in Auckland while we stocked up on groceries.

We departed Auckland and spent the next seven days on board enjoying all the magnificent scenery and fishing the east coast islands have to offer before arriving in Opua on the north-eastern coast of the North Island. Opua is a major port of entry to and exit from New Zealand for cruising boats.

We checked our safety equipment and practiced emergency procedures, secured everything and added extra tie-downs to the fuel bladders in the cockpit. We filled in all the paperwork for New Zealand and Australian Customs and contacted Lord Howe Island to book a mooring and arrange for fuel.

Then it was just a matter of waiting for the best weather window. I studied four separate weather models and checked them after every update. I was constantly second guessing myself; I would see a possible weather window but then I would doubt myself and wonder: "If I wait, will a better window appear?"

Timing the departure

After two weeks, we decided to go. The forecast wasn't great but it seemed do-able.

One of my major concerns was the stretch of water from North Point on the north-eastern tip of the North Island to Three King Islands. It is only about 45 nautical miles, but this is where the South Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea converge. The locals warned me often about how treacherous the seas can be there. On top of that was the risk of hitting a sun fish! We were told that a number had been spotted; hitting one of these fish could cause major damage. Sun fish are the world's largest bony fish and can weigh up to 1,000kg. And, as their name implies, they like swimming close to the surface of the ocean.

My plan was to begin this crossing at first light with the tide and sea running in the same direction and watch closely for signs of the dorsal fins of sun fish.

We departed Opua and made the 70 nautical mile trip up the coast to North Point. As we turned the corner and headed north-west, we were confronted by 30-knot north-west winds and huge seas. It didn't feel right; the winds should have swung to the south-west. I decided to head back to North Point and try again next morning. I found a beautiful anchorage that was well protected by the north-west wind but was very open to south-westerlies. I knew that when the wind changed it was going to be rather unpleasant, but there was no other option for us as the next anchorage was too far away and I wanted to conserve fuel.

Sure enough, the winds swung to the south-west in the middle of the night. The boat rolled vigorously, and we had a broken sleep.

As we passed North Cape in the morning and steered on to a south-westerly course, I knew I had made the right decision in spending the night at anchor. My only concern now was to watch out for sun fish.

My voyage plan was different from our trip to New Zealand. This time I needed to go fast for the first six hours for two reasons. First, the morning was the best time to avoid the sun fish as I heard they come up to sun themselves in the afternoon. Second, the wind was running in the same direction as the tide for the next six hours so it would make for a smoother ride and flatter sea.

Perfect passage to Lord Howe Island

The trip to Lord Howe Island was perfect. We maintained our six-hour shifts and ran engine checks every two hours. The trip took 67 hours, 18 hours faster than the trip across. We radioed the harbour master and he once again guided us through the shallow, reefy waters of the lagoon to our mooring.

After a day of rest and a good night's sleep, we refuelled Majesnik and planned a trip to Elizabeth and Middleton reefs. Unfortunately, our permits hadn't been approved in time so we decided to head to Ball's Pyramid for some fishing. Ball's Pyramid lies 13 nautical miles south-east of Lord Howe island and is the tallest volcanic stack in the world. As we approached the pyramid, we were both taken aback by her magnitude; the pyramid rises 561 metres straight out of the Pacific Ocean and is certainly an impressive structure.

After admiring her beauty and taking a few photos, I decided to troll some lures. Just five minutes later we had our first hit. After a short fight, I landed our first Ball's Pyramid kingfish.

We continued to troll and, within minutes, had a quadruple hook up. The reels were screaming louder than I have ever heard. We had no idea what we had hooked up and no time to think about it either. It was chaos! We were both fighting fish and had another two rods still going off in the rod holders. Our lines were crossing and one of the reels was nearly spooled. After an intense battle, I landed my first yellow-fin tuna. A few moments later Gabriella landed hers and we managed to land a third. We have heard that yellow-fin tuna fight better than southern blue-fin and, now that we had caught some, I definitely agree.

Non-stop fishing action

We continued trolling for a few more hours with non-stop action; more tuna, kingfish and even a wahoo. It was time to head back home into our anchorage, clean the fish and have some much-anticipated fresh seafood for dinner.

We spent the next couple of days relaxing, exploring and enjoying the amazing scenery of the island. We were fortunate that one of the locals we had met on our trip to New Zealand offered us his car and gave us some great tips about the best places to see.

One morning we woke early and took the tender to shore as we had heard that one of the locals was milking a cow and supplied fresh milk. We arrived there with our bottles ready. Instead, he made Gabriella milk the cow! We headed back to Majesnik with our warm, fresh milk.

Later that day we received a call over the radio that our permit had been approved, so once again we started to prepare the boat for the 100 nautical mile trip north to Elizabeth and Middleton reefs.

Cruising alongside a mother whale and her calf

The reefs are unique; they represent the southern-most platform reefs in the world and are protected by the Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs Marine National Reserve. They are similar in shape, with Middleton being slightly bigger at 8.9km long compared with Elizabeth at 6.3km.

We had a relatively smooth trip to Elizabeth Reef and were fortunate on the way to spot mother and calf sperm whales.

When approaching the reef, we were amazed by its size and beauty and wasted no time in anchoring and dropping the tender to begin exploring. Then it was time to start trolling again and we weren't disappointed - kingfish after kingfish, and even more kingfish! Add heaps of yellow-fin tuna and some more wahoo and Gabriella and I were totally exhausted. We fished for three-and-a-half hours. We headed into the cay to anchor for the night and enjoyed a relaxing drink while watching the sun set over the ocean.

We were up early the next morning to a beautifully calm sea and began the 30-mile trip to Middleton Reef. Once again, we were captivated by her size and beauty. The feeling of being alone so far out at sea and having the reef to ourselves was so surreal. We motored carefully into the cay and anchored Majesnik and were greeted by several Galapagos sharks. We dropped the tender and began exploring. The reef was alive with so many marine species: hundreds of colourful clams, starfish, turtles, coral and all the incredibly colourful fish. It was the most spectacular reef we had ever seen.

We awoke early to begin the journey back to Lord Howe Island as the storms that hit Sydney a few days earlier were fast approaching.

Luck was on my side

We saw a vessel on approach from New Zealand. I had a chat to him over the radio and discovered that he had left New Zealand at exactly the same day and time that we did. But he had to turn around to repair his vessel after he hit a sun fish at 10 in the morning. He was travelling at only eight knots! I crossed that 820 nautical mile stretch at 22 knots. I think luck was on my side. So much for my theory that the fish rise only in the warm sun!

When we arrived at Lord Howe Island, we immediately began to secure Majesnik to the mooring in preparation for the approaching storm. This involved diving in the water and securing a chain from the boat directly to the bottom mooring chain - just in case the mooring rope broke.

The next few days were the worst we have experienced on board. As the storm struck, the wind gusted to 60 knots and we watched an incredible lightning display. With a shallow reef only 70 meters on one side, rocks not much further on the other side and three sailing boats moored around us, we took turns sitting in the flybridge with the motors running and all instruments on, keeping watch just in case the mooring let go. Fortunately, the mooring held and the winds began to ease to around 30 knots. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't going to get any better in the foreseeable future.

The next two weeks were not as enjoyable as the first two. The winds continued to blow and, as the tide rose, waves washed over the reef into the lagoon, gradually increasing to two metres. Tendering to shore was only possible during low tide and for only a few hours a day.

The final leg home

Finally, a small weather window appeared. We needed 24 hours to cruise the 315 nautical miles to Coffs Harbour. The plan was to depart early in the morning. The winds would still be 20 to 25 knots but, if we steered further north, the weather would get better.

There was another serious low approaching so we had to be quick. I spoke to a few sailors who were also stuck on the island. They opted not to depart as they travel more slowly than we could and were worried about the approaching low.

We departed as planned and, as we reached the open seas, we were confronted by huge seas straight on the nose. I started to doubt my decision. Eager to get home, I opted to keep going. We endured about five hours of seas up to three metres before they started to drop. By night the seas were calm.

All went well and we arrived in Coffs Harbour as anticipated. Despite arriving at 8am, we opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate the safe return of Majesnik and ourselves to Australia.

We had spent nine months in New Zealand. We had known at the outset that it would be an amazing experience, but it was much more that that. The places we saw, the things we did and the friends we made had given us a truly life-altering experience.

If you are considering any extended coastal or offshore cruising, it is strongly recommend that you first consult your insurance company as there will be restrictions and guidelines that they will impose in the interests of your safety and that of the vessel and your crew. It is also strongly recommended that you consult with an experienced Master 5 Captain or the equivalent international qualifications to seek their advice on vessel preparation, safety equipment, training, weather prediction, safety procedures and suitable crew experience to assist you in your voyage.

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