Our first of many New Zealand adventures began when we boarded an 8:15 AM Interislander ferry in Wellington harbor for a three-hour, 100 km voyage across Cook Strait named for explorer James Cook who discovered it January 22, 1770. Our destination was the port of Picton in a protected harbor on the south island at the end of the Marlborough channel.
The day presented us with spectacular scenery, turbulent weather, and a brush with 18th century navigation history. We would sail where Cook navigated his tiny Endeavour in 1770 from the southern Pacific Ocean to the Tasman Sea in the northwest. On this voyage, Cook mapped the New Zealand coastline and sailed west where he explored the east coast of Australia.
Cook Strait is one of the world’s most treacherous nautical passages with blustery winds, heavy rain, fog, and strong currents that reverse every six hours. During inclement weather, currents may surge for nine hours, enfeebling the reverse current so that strong currents can surge for three cycles making navigation difficult and dangerous. The orientation of New Zealand’s landmass also present challenges for sailors; its islands are not aligned in a pure north-south orientation. The south island is actually west of the north island. The narrowest point in Cook Strait is only 22 km across where tiny rocky islands and outcropping can be treacherous for ships passing too close.
The ship had four decks, a lower deck for cars and trucks, two passenger decks with cafes and lounges, and an open upper deck. When we boarded, the south island was visible across the strait. We waited anxiously until tenders tossed off lines and we began our journey
We stood on the upper deck when we depart Wellington. For the next 45 minutes, we sailed around a hook of land that shelter Wellington harbor from strong winds and currents. We passed barren, windswept mountains that surround Wellington like a bowl.
The southern points of the north island looked forbidding — wind-swept, barren and cloud covered We snapped a few photos of the rocky extremities as we sailed out of the harbor, passing small islands toward the rough currents of the Cook Strait.
Navigating Cook Strait
Once in the strait, we looked across at islands and the southern mainland through heavy fog, grey and misty in the distance. Winds in Cook Strait can reach 150 mph near Wellington Head. For the next hour, we gripped the railing, our faces splashed with spray as our ferry crashed through the strong currents. Taking photos was challenging. After a few minutes on the exposed upper deck, we’d retreat to a lower deck to warm up and dry off.
Approaching the south island, we passed rocky islands offshore which looked treacherous for navigators. After an hour on the strait, we sailed into Marlborough channel formed by barren and rocky hillsides. Winds subsided but the air was still cold. Seas were calmer and we saw sailboats and fishing boats heading to the strait. The southern landscape began looking more inviting, become green with vegetation and a few trees. In sheltered coves sheep grazed on steep hillsides. Small farms were nestled along the shore but we couldn’t see any of the hardy farmers. A little further we saw remote fishing villages.
Cook Strait map
On the upper deck, wall maps showed the numerous islands and channels between the north and south island. I studied the map, intrigued by the complexity of navigating the narrow straits, islands and passages, imagining how challenging it was the first sailors and navigators who crossed the strait.
I liked the map so much that I bought a copy in the gift shop and carried it for three weeks on the south island. When we returned, I framed it and it now hangs in our ‘map room’ alongside maps of Australia, St. Petersburg, and an 18th century geological map of Britain we’ve picked up on our travels.
Next: Picton on New Zealand’s south island
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