Bright Queensland morning sun blasted into the master cabin right on 4:30 am, rudely awakening me as usual, as it has everyday for the past three months. But luckily, today is the day we begin our eight-day seaward return home to New Zealand, where they rightly believe daylight savings time won’t fade the drapes or upset the milking cows and an extra hour of shut-eye does a body good. Joining Gaz and myself for the crossing are three Kiwis, flying over yesterday, to the Gold Coast to be conscripted on as crew, anglers and knights of the midnight watch. That totals up as a five man crew, a comfortable amount to make the crossing enjoyable, with enough bodies to cover night watches and fresh ears to listen to Gaz’s stale fishing stories.
Jared, our boat builder, has been trying to join us for a fishing getaway ever since November Rain came out of his shed a year ago, where he oversaw our last major refit. Life has a way of interrupting the best of plans and he has already cancelled two previously scheduled trips, mostly due to his wife’s complicated pregnancy and the subsequent birth of their healthy son. We were hoping that the third time was a charm and as soon as he climbed aboard, I toyed with the idea of hiding his phone, to prevent any ridiculous business from tearing him away again. He’s joined by Andy, a fishing mate of his, and coincidently, a well-respected diesel mechanic. Just having a diesel mechanic aboard provides excellent insurance that we will never need his area of expertise. Andy has the exact same body build, height and wrinkle patterns as Gaz and I will spend the next eight days accidentally trying to cuddle him in a case of mistaken identity. The third crew member is young Hunter Bryce, a seventeen-year mullet-headed deck hand who was recommended to us independently by both of his current employers, (after we put out an SOS out on Facebook seeking volunteer crew). Hunter will soon be working as a deckie aboard the Charter Vessel Gladiator, alongside Lisa Noble, another former crew member of ours from earlier in the year. The two will, I’m sure, compare their war stories of life aboard November Rain when they meet again. Hunter holds the New Zealand IGFA Junior record for a Southern Bluefin tuna, weighing in at 105 kgs and plans on a career in game fishing.
To prepare for the crossing, we took on an additional 3,000 liters of fuel, topping off November Rain’s tanks to 5,000 liters. At nine knots, our usual trolling speed, she burns about 20 liters/hour and Gaz has calculated that we can expect to burn about 3,000 liters to reach Opua, our clearance point in New Zealand. It is peace of mind knowing we have enough for emergencies, such as fishing a hot bite on the Whanganella Banks, or that we can ramp up speed to outrun bad weather. During the early morning fueling process, Gaz made a friend of the dock attendant, who, once learning of our plans, offered use of her newish BMW sport ute for the afternoon. This allowed us to provision our larders without embarrassingly cramming three trolley loads of groceries into the back of a subcompact Uber, all while an annoyed driver questions his career choices. We are very grateful for her generosity and good nature and highly recommend you go see Mary at the fuel dock at Runaway Bay Marina on the Gold Coast (for fuel, not free rental of luxury cars).
Gaz had been studying weather patterns for the past three weeks, hoping we would have an opportunity to stop over at the famed Whanganella Banks, where striped marlin fishing can be best be described as complete insanity, a couple of private boats reporting up to twenty catches and releases in a single day. We have already had two goes at the Banks in the previous year, once tagging twelve fish over three days, and another less successful pass with only a single fish to show for it. The Whanganella Banks are located between Australia and New Zealand in the Tasman Sea and are not often fished by recreational anglers due to their extreme remoteness, 700 nautical miles from the Gold Coast and over 300 miles from New Zealand. The seafloor rises from 4000 meters to just under 50 meters, with prevailing currents that concentrate bait, all to the benefit of the feeding striped marlin. The weather patterns promised two calm days on the banks, but we’ll have to put up with oncoming seas on the nose for a couple of days before and after, promising a mostly uncomfortable trip as we head home to NZ.
We checked out of Oz, facilitated by two polite but diligent customs officers who had driven all the way down from Brisbane to Surfer’s Paradise, specifically to clear us out. Seems like a waste of taxpayer dollars, but it’s not our country, nor our taxes, so they won’t get any complaints from us, and we appreciated the convenience of not having to backtrack to Brisbane to clear out of the country. After the officers went through their check list of forms and questions, which ate up all of ten minutes, we cast off the dock lines and motored out of the bay, taking a right at the first headland, heading southeast toward New Zealand, with stops planned at Middleton Reef and the Whanganella Banks. As soon as we were across the bar, the crew put out the trolling lures behind us. We aren’t hold out much hope for a bite until we reach the Whanganellas, but you never know, as Gaz often tells me, “There are no fences out there”.
Watches were parcelled out, two and one-half hour-long shifts for each of the crew. As the ship’s cook, I was granted my preferred hours on the helm, sunrise shift, to compensate for my hours chained to the galley. Gaz had decided to go ahead and sync our ship’s clocks three hours ahead to New Zealand time, a decision for which we are now struggling with a bit. The sun now rises around 7:30 a.m. and sets after 11:00 pm. We might have to make an adjustment in our watch schedules as it’s still too much daylight left to fall asleep after completing the midnight watch.
The first night was as rough as promised, and after levitating above the firm mattress half the night, I was pretty bruised up. Gaz had an even worse night than I, but it’s typical that no one sleeps well on the first night of a crossing. By the third night, everyone is so physically tired, they can sleep practically standing up. Gaz promised a peaceful night at anchor as we are due arrive at Middleton Reef tonight around 10 pm.
At 1:44 or 4:44 pm, depending on who’s watch you were reading, we hooked up a Mahi-Mahi on the starboard rigger, with Andy jumping on the rod, Hunter wrangling the leader with Jared making the gaff shot, a true team effort. A small win, but big enough to put some excitement back on the table and get this party started. Dinner that evening was Braised Lamb Shanks in Obsession sauce, Fresh Green Beans, Mashed Potatoes, Green Salad and Garlic Bread. We saved the Mahi-Mahi for fish tacos the following night. We eat pretty well at sea, as there’s not much else to keep us entertained other than fishing and bad jokes.
As we approached Middleton Reef on dusk, eerie silhouettes of multiple shipwrecks jutted up against the flat horizon, giving stern warning of dangers below the surface. We anchored in six meters of water, the crew seemingly awed by the fact that the reef was here, out in the middle of nowhere, 400 miles off the continent of Australia. Underwater lights lured a small shark to the back of the boat, swimming among floating clumps of pond scum and what we could only guess to be coral spawn. A suggestion was thrown out that the scum might actually consist of valuable ambergris, but no one seemed keen enough to wrestle a shark for whale vomit. A lemon meringue pie finished out the night and it was off to La-La-land for a peaceful night’s sleep on the reef.
In the morning, we trolled Rapala style lures across the reef on light gear. The biggest surprise, our first fish, was a legal sized kingfish, something the boys could have easily caught at home in NZ. The kingy was released unharmed after it’s photo op. Jared snagged the first yellow fin, which we kept in case there was a sudden urge for sashimi. Excitement ramped up when a double-strike on tuna went off, both of which were released. We caught a couple more tuna, again released. A second tuna was reluctantly dispatched to the freezer after it died, a jagged hook in the fish’s gill plate.
We left the reef midmorning, continuing on our way, heading southeast towards NZ. The winds and the waves were finally beginning ease, giving me a chance to finally break my grip on the hand holds and pick up the stuff rolling around on the floor. When it became apparent that we weren’t going to be reaching the Whanganella Bank until noon the following day at our current rate of nine knots, Gaz whipped the Yanmar 370 HP ponies into a gallop over the next five hours, cruising at a breakneck speed of seventeen knots. This little exercised doubled the fuel consumption, but promised us a dawn arrival on the bank and an extra half-day of what we hoped would be extreme fishing.
Sunrise was spectacular on the Whanganella Banks. The water was a promising 23 degrees and flat calm, practically a mill pound. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions, but someone forgot to invite the fish to the party. The crew took their turns climbing up the tuna tower, scanning the horizon for the telltale signs of marlin; mutton ducks bobbing on the water, their heads bowed down under the water, presumably watching meatballs below the surface being corralled by hungry striped marlin. We managed to spot a few birds, but nothing like we had seen in our two previous visits to the bank.
Large dolphins were fishing all around us, and several took to bow surfing with us, one enthusiastic fellow sticking with us for well over fifteen minutes. This particular fellow seemed to be watching Jared and I as we gawked back. If I moved from side to side on the boat, he would follow me to the other side, periodically rolling on his side to make sure I was still watching. When Jared finally left the bow, the dolphin peeled off, knowing his audience had disappeared.
After a couple of hours of cruising around the bank, we had our first strike, which failed to hook up. Another hour passed and suddenly, the port corner rod began screaming off. I was on deck for the first fish, so I grabbed the rod out of the holder and began buckling into the standup gear while the crew began to clear the other rods. There was another marlin in the gear and Gaz continued to motor forward, hoping to make this a double hook-up. In the meantime, all I could do was dejectedly watch the 60 kg nylon scream off my reel, eventually reaching the lighter 37 kg dacron backing. Gaz finally ceded on the possibility of a double hook-up and began backing the boat up, allowing me the opportunity to finally regain some of the line. My marlin suddenly lit up and began grey-hounding across the water, desperately trying to throw the hook. He gave a sterling performance, and certainly one of the more active fish I’ve ever encountered. Fortunately, the hook seemed to be well set and after a couple of minutes, he settled down. I managed to coax him to the boat in less than twenty minutes. Hunter wired the beast and Jared helped with the hook removal. The fish was nice and fat, a respectable estimated 120 kg and he gave one last leap at the boat upon release before he swam away. Happy 2019, and first marlin of the year is on the board, Ms. Ford!
As I was no longer on point for the rod, I decided to put my other talents to use in the kitchen, slicing up fruit and weaving a beautiful lattice top for an apple pie. Unfortunately, Gaz was veering hard to port at the same time I was checking doneness, and the pie slid out and splattered upside down onto the galley floor. Worst of all, my favorite pie dish shattered into several pieces. I scooped up the hot mess up and chucked it all over the side, the crockery sinking but the pie continuing to float, mocking me every time Gaz made another pass by with the lures.
We had three more double strikes that afternoon, but Gaz believed it to be the same two fish each time. We certainly weren’t seeing the numbers we had hoped for. In the meantime, ominous clouds were forming on the horizon. We hadn’t had a weather report in days, and our Sat phone was giving us SIM card error messages, thwarting access to updated forecasts. Gaz made the decision to pull the pin on fishing the bank a second day, instead we would continue on to Tom Bowling, New Zealand for a snapper fish, one of my favorite spots in the world, and at the risk of ruining it, the best snapper fishing in the world.
The next day, the weather was absolutely beautiful, clear skies, light wind and calm seas. Gaz spotted a floating barnacle-encrusted buoy trailing 5 meters of rope that was loaded with resident mahi-mahi. As we cruised past the buoy, four of the five game rods went off, a quadruple hit on the marlin lures. After boating a couple of the fish, Gaz decided to make another pass at the FAD (fish aggregating device), theorizing that it would be rude not too. Again, the voracious appetites of the mahi-mahi were responsible for their demise, and we boated a couple more fish. Gaz decided that he wanted the buoy, as it had a nifty lifting hook on the top, perfect for a mooring buoy at our place in Vanuatu. The boys cut off the 5 meters of rope and pulled it aboard, removing the floating habitat of the resident fish. This seemed to cause some confusion in the fish, now seeking new shelter under the boat, at least until we motored off again. Gaz spent a good hour cutting off goose neck mollusks. At least a dozen small crabs scurried off their now dry-docked home and were unceremoniously hosed off, back into the deep.
That afternoon, we finally were in range of Far North Radio, and Gaz radioed Annette on the VHF for an updated forecast. (Annette is a well-adored local radio voice, who keeps tabs of all the boats within her range, reporting weather updates and relaying messages between boaters and the rest of the world. Far North Radio is a valuable resource, and it’s all accomplished on a volunteer basis in very pleasant Kiwi manner, with Annette remembering the names of all of her skippers and their boats, even years later.) When the report promised continuing good weather for the next three days, we made a decision to anchor at the Three Kings Islands for the night, get a good nights sleep and try for another marlin on the King Bank in the morning.
Unfortunately, the water on the King Bank was a chilly 14 degrees, certainly too cold for stripeys. We motored around all morning, hoping to find a current line with warmer water, but only hooked a medium-sized Mako shark in the shallows. The fight was a bit of a distraction for the crew and some fun ensued. The mako managed one really nice bounce out of the water for us, living up to it’s reputation as the aerial acrobat of the shark family. Jared hauled it in with the drag dialed up to sunset, Hunter wired, and Andy helped retrieve our lure before cutting the line, freeing the nonplussed shark to swim away with new stainless lip jewelry.
There were a few attempts at jigging for kingfish, but the sounder wasn’t displaying promising signs, despite Gaz scouting several of his favorite marks. Gaz seemed to favor spots well over 100 meters deep, tiring the anglers quickly and decreasing our enthusiasm for that particular style of fishing. By now, the mahi-mahi frames and scraps from the previous day were ripening in a bucket in one of the pods (we had saved them to use for burley for upcoming snapper fishing). A few mutton ducks and a very large albatross had been hanging around the back of the boat during our jig session. The albatross is a surprisingly large bird, as majestic as an eagle and as fat as a turkey. Gaz had a bit of sport by tossing chunks of chum to the mutton ducks, only to have the albatross swoop in and steal the prize. After a bit, a few more albatrosses, sensing the free feed, swooped in, and the skirmishes became heavyweight title fights between the big birds rather than the schoolyard bullying of mutton ducks.
We rocked past Tom Bowling Bay around 5 pm, officially entering New Zealand waters after seven days and 1,375 nautical miles. Cell phone coverage popped up and the crew caught up with friends and family, assuring them of our safe arrival. The putrid mahi-mahi burley went over the side, clearing the horrific stench from the deck, and hopefully, luring unsuspecting snapper closer as we drift fished. The mahi-mahi strips made surprisingly good bait, the skin being tough enough to stay on the hook well. Still, I believe there is no better bait substitute for snapper fishing than fresh oily skipjack tuna. The snapper bite was marginal, probably due to the slack water as much as the lack of skippy bait, but we still managed to catch a couple of nice platter-sized specimens, a few undersized ones that went back in the tide and one photo-worthy fella, also released.
We had company in the bay, a magnificent 34 meter game boat that was a dream to behold, and I’m sure our crew would have jumped ship to the other boat if we had not shackled them to the rail. As we were now close to land, the mosquitos began to swarm in drove after dark. I woke the next morning to find squashed bug blood all over the saloon, the result of Gaz’s pathological hatred of mozzies pitted against my distaste for aerosol bug spray in confined spaces.
Our last fishing day was spent trolling wide, down the coast in blue water, seeking one last shot at another marlin. The day was a bust for fishing, and rumors on social media spoke of five purse seiners scooping up all the bait off Tairua, most likely having a detrimental effect on game fishing in the areas to the North.
It’s been a fantastic trip with great company and I am a little sad for it to come to an end. At dusk, the crew locked off the ship’s lines on the cleats of Opua’s quarantine dock and Gaz ran the yellow flag up the outrigger as required. Essentially, we are prisoners aboard the boat until customs agents give the all clear in the morning. In the meantime, it’s all hands on deck squashing ants and any other hitchhikers that might give us a bad report card with the agents.
There was quite a bit of food left over, and whatever I couldn’t force down the gullets of the gannets we called crew, went over the side, in preparation for the morning’s inspection. The remaining apples went into a puff pastry tart, a sort of consolation prize for my lost apple pie. My attempts to keep scurvy at bay with fresh oranges has all been but ignored by the crew and I still had two dozen rolling around in a basket. Rather than pitch them overboard, I squeezed out fresh juice for the morning’s breakfast. One last meal before we are boarded in the morning. One last chance to get rid of dangerous contraband such as ham, eggs and potatoes.
The following morning, a very pleasant Biosecurity Officer went through our pantry, confiscating the problematic food still remaining; honey, pork products, chicken, one lonely pepper as well as an unopened bag of rice that had signs of weevils. Tiny ants crawled out of their crevices to say hello during his inspection, causing me embarrassment and concern for a possible quarantine. Fortunately, the officer was very reasonable and suggested some chemical intervention in the near future. After he departed, carting eight days of our rubbish with him, we were boarded by the Customs Agent. Apparently, NZ Customs had been tracking the locations of our AIS signal during the voyage, and the agent issued Gaz a stern reprimand and official warning for dropping anchor at the Three Kings Islands, an act that was in clear violation of New Zealand Customs Laws. All we can hope it that there are no further legal ramifications from this misstep, as the matter has been officially documented and sent on for further evaluation.
With the sour taste of the Customs encounter still in our mouths, we puttered out of Opua , backtracking thirty miles north, to lay November Rain to bed in her home berth of Whangaroa Harbour. It’s back to Auckland now and the “insanity world” for us, but we have already begun planning our next big trip… nine days fishing the NZ Nationals in February. Here’s hoping for the next big one…