10 February 2014

Cruising In The Mercury Islands {Or It Was A Swell Time}

Chart of the Mercury Islands. Sourced from LINZ. Crown Copyright reserved.
Back before we got our own boat, I never imagined that I would ever get out to the Mercury Islands. The Mercuries are remote and isolated islands located 8 kms off the top of the Coromandel Peninsula. They lie on the edge of the Hauraki Gulf and if you keep heading southwards from them you’ll find yourself in the Bay of Plenty and the Port of Tauranga. Six of the islands are nature reserves managed by the Department of Conservation, while the seventh and largest island, Great Mercury, is privately owned by Sir Michael Fay, a merchant banker who regularly tops the New Zealand rich list. If you’re into sailing, his name may also ring a bell given his (some might say litigious) backing of New Zealand in the America’s Cup in the 1980s.

Sir Michael built some swanky properties on the island and usually people who visit fly over on helicopter from Auckland and fork over NZ$20k or more to rent one of the houses for a day. But fortunately for the rest of us without money burning a hole in our pockets, Sir Michael allows boaties to visit the island and roam around on the beaches and farmland. Apparently, he even holds a barbeque for all the boaties on New Year’s Eve in Mercury Cove. He seems like a swell guy and his island is pretty swell too.   

When we headed out to Great Mercury last month, we first anchored at Peachgrove Bay on the south side of the island. Some folks had told us that it was one of the loveliest bays in New Zealand with a long, white sandy beach and shallow waters perfect for a nice swim. It sounded good to us and when we got there it looked just swell. An absolutely idyllic island paradise. We were in heaven. But as we settled in for the night and the sun went down, our heaven turned into hell. And it was a swell, swell hell. 

You may have guessed by now that “swell” has two meanings: (1) super-duper and (2) the water pushing relentlessly against your boat over and over and over during the night, slamming you and everything in your boat from side to side and keeping you up all night.

We got the latter type of swell at Peachgrove Bay. What made it even worse is that we went to sleep in flat calm waters with no swell predicted and were really looking forward to a peaceful sleep in calm weather. But then the swell came knocking on our boat to say “howdy” and woke us up. We toyed around with relocating but there weren’t any anchorages nearby that were protected from the swell, so we ended up staying and not sleeping again.

Clearly, sleep deprivation is affecting our ability to think clearly, because for some reason we decided to stay in Peachgrove Bay a second night. We deluded ourselves into thinking that by relocating in the bay we wouldn’t be affected by the swell and I even think we convinced ourselves there wouldn’t be any swell that night. What’s that quote about insanity – doing the same stupid thing over and over again? That would be us. Insane. And tired.

But not to worry, there were some really great parts of our time cruising to the Mercury Islands – there was a shark, penguins, walks and some new cruising buddies. And we put on a comedy show for the folks in the fizzboats near the beach when we tried to get in our dinghy in the, yes you guessed it, giant swell. Read on if you want the scoop… 

Wednesday, 22 January 2014 

After hiding out from the remnants of Cyclone June at Westhaven Marina in Auckland for a couple of days, we were more than ready to get back out on the water. But before we got underway, I got a chance to practice my docking maneuvers. It kind of reminds me of trying to squeeze your car into a parallel parking spot without hitting the curb. Except in this case, you’re steering a boat and the curb is a big dock which you can’t really see too well because you’re way too short. Fortunately, Scott is tall and talked me through the maneuver. I was convinced I was going to smash into the dock but he kept telling me to go forward and when to turn and amazingly neither the boat nor the dock were injured in the process. Not sure how I would do it without Scott coaching me. Some more practice certainly seems to be required.

We left Westhaven after lunch and headed over to Islington Bay for a couple of days to wait out some more weather as there were gusts predicted around 35 knots. Islington Bay is a nice sheltered place to hide out and a pretty bay, but it seems like all we’ve been doing this summer is cursing the wind and watching our boat swing back and forth on the anchor. It gets old after a while. 

Thursday, 23 January 2014 

Another day on the boat hiding out from the weather. We talked about food. We made food. We ate food. Scott also kept an eye on the other boats in the bay. He is currently reading James Michener’s Alaska so when he saw a catamaran from Alaska anchored near us he got all excited. Well, “excited” might be a bit of an exaggeration. But it did give us something to talk about for a while. 

Friday, 24 January 2014

A beautiful sunset at Peachgrove Bay. It made us think we were in a for a peaceful night's sleep.
We left Islington Bay at 5:00 am to head to Great Mercury Island. It was my second time sailing in the dark and it was quite a different experience from the last time when we left Great Barrier Island in the dark where there weren’t any shipping or ferries or really any boats at all to worry about. In contrast, Islington Bay is located in the Tamaki Strait which has a shipping lane, high-speed ferries and other boats out and about. I was amazed at all the lights you could see at night – some on the shore, some marking rocks and reefs and some on other boats. So many things to avoid! Scott, being a good skipper, had studied the charts the night before and laid in a track on our chartplotter so that he could be sure to avoid anything you don’t want to hit and be aware of when you’re crossing the ferry and shipping lanes.

Although it started out as a pleasant, peaceful sail, conditions deteriorated when we got to the top end of the Coromandel Peninsula near Channel Island. Going through the passage between Channel Island and the Coromandel Peninsula, we had 24 knots of wind, with wind against tide and big waves behind us. Well, big waves to me. Scott said they were moderate and has seen worse. In any event, it made for one very roly-poly sail.

After 60 nautical miles and 13 hours later, we anchored at Peachgrove Bay on the southern end of Great Mercury Island. We were absolutely shattered by this point, but the bay was absolutely stunning and it was a beautiful evening so we started to believe things were looking up for us and we would have a peaceful night’s sleep. We couldn’t have been more wrong. One of our blog readers shared this quote with us, which perfectly describes our night – “I slept like a baby. Every five minutes, I woke up and cried.” It was a swell, swell night. 

Saturday, 25 January 2014 

After our roly-poly, choppy night from hell in our island paradise, we woke up to a beautiful morning with flat calm water in Peachgrove Bay. The swell was gone. An American guy from the only other boat in the anchorage came over on his dinghy to ask if we had any petrol that we could give him for their generator as their engine wouldn’t start. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to help as ours is pre-mixed with oil for use in our outboard motor, so they decided to sail off their anchor and make their way back to Whitianga under sail. We stood by with a line ready in case they ran into any trouble getting off the anchor. Fortunately, they didn’t need our help and sailed off expertly and away they went. We decided to relocate to where they had been anchored as it seemed to better sheltered.

Proof that Scott really did see a penguin.
While I was doing the dishes, Scott saw a cute little penguin swim near the boat and put on a little acrobatic show for him. By the time I got up there he was gone. Then Scott saw what he swore was a shark patrolling the shore. I am not very fond of sharks so I told him it was a stingray. He didn’t believe me and stuck with his shark story. A big launch came into the bay and Scott headed over in the dinghy to tell them about his shark. I still didn’t believe him. But then he came back and said that they guy on the launch told him that 5-6 bronze whaler sharks had been spotted in this bay a few weeks ago so it looks like Scott was right. Or he made up the story about what the guy on the launch said. In any event, bronzies are an unpleasant sort of shark and apparently are way up there on the list of sharks who like to bite humans. I decided swimming was off the schedule for the day.

We headed over to the island to the main beach in search of the waterfall. We never did find it, but we had a nice walk and enjoyed the views. By the time we were ready to head back to the boat, there were a number of other boats in the bay. And our flat calm waters had turned into choppy waters. I’ve never tried to launch a dinghy from a beach into crashing waves. Let me tell you, it isn’t easy. I jumped in the dinghy, water came splashing over the side. Scott pushed it out in the water, more water came splashing over the side. While I wasn’t paying attention, Scott pulled the cord on the outboard motor to start it and bashed his hand into my face smacking me in the nose. More water came splashing into the boat. It was a comedy show beyond belief. I’m so happy we gave the people on the launches and fizz boats something to talk about over lunch. We finally got underway and then the engine stopped. And it was a long way back to our boat. And with no seat on our dinghy (lost during a previous storm at Great Barrier), rowing back was going to present an interesting challenge. Fortunately, Scott got the motor started again and we made it back.

The smaller beach at Peachgrove Bay. Much easier to land a dinghy here.
After lunch, we decided to head over the smaller beach which has a sheltered area where you can pull a dinghy up without big waves crashing down on you. We spent a couple of hours napping and reading and started to believe that Peachgove Bay wasn’t too bad after all. So, thinking our boat was now anchored in spot more protected from any swell, we decided to stay again for the night. Yep, you guessed it. We were wrong. It was another swell night. One boat ended up leaving during the night. We thought about it, but trying to get to another bay on the island in the dark in unfamiliar waters didn’t seem like the best option. So we stayed. And we rolled back and forth and back and forth. And we cried like a baby. 

Sunday, 26 January 2014 

Huruhi Bay, Great Mercury Island
After another night sleeping like babies, we decided to find ourselves a new anchorage. The wind was due to change direction later in the day, so even if we wanted to stay another day to enjoy the swell, Peachgrove Bay would have been the wrong anchorage for the wind. So we decided to head over to the western side of Mercury Island and do some fishing along the way. Poor Scott. He had been looking forward to fishing in the area as the waters around the Mercury Islands are great fishing grounds. Of course, the weather had other plans in mind for him. The rain started pouring down and the swell came back with a vengeance. So we said bye-bye to fishing and headed straight over to Huruhi Harbour. At first, we anchored outside of the harbor with some other big launches and sailboats but the swell was getting to be really obnoxious so Scott decided to relocate into the harbor itself. It is pretty shallow so only boats with shoal draft can anchor in there and even then you need to be mindful of the depth and the tidal range. We found a sweet little spot which suited our 1.6 meter draft and dropped the hook around 2:00 pm. And boy was I glad we moved in there when we did because the harbor quickly became a parking lot given it was a long holiday weekend. I’m happy to report that with our boat tucked in cozily, we had an early night and everyone slept well. 

Sunday, 27 January 2014 

Close anchoring at the "parking lot" at Huruhi Harbour. This boat was anchored so close to ours that when they pulled up their anchor in the morning they were only a couple of feet away from us.
Finally, after a good night’s sleep, we woke up refreshed and decided to go for a walk out to Parapara Bay and then over the headlands near White Beach. On our way back, we met two couples – one on a catamaran and one on a launch. The folks on the launch were talking about how low they were getting on water and were down from 700 liters to only 300 litres. I think I had to pick my jaw up off of the ground when they said that. I started to dream about the hot showers they must take at least three times a day and how many loads of laundry they get through on their boat. We only carry 50 litres of water for drinking and cooking and 50 litres for cleaning and washing up. I think the folks on the catamaran said they carry even less than that. Living on a sailboat certainly makes you think differently about water, that’s for sure!

Later that afternoon, we went over to another boat for a beer. Which as most beers end up doing, turned into a few beers, followed by some rum and cokes. And before you know it, we ended up having dinner with them and folks from another boat. Lovely, lovely people – a great time was had by all. It was swell. And most importantly, another great night’s sleep was had by all! 


Total nautical miles = 75
Top speed = 7.2
Number of sleepless nights = too many to count


  1. This has been a most enjoyable and swell post (and I assume pun intended). Personally swell makes me sleep better than a baby... it's the winds and the fear of dragging that brings tears to my eyes. I guess it's all in the program when you get miles under you keel, which you guys are doing admirably.
    Good geography lessons for us on the other side too.


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