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Back to the tropics: Sailing NZ to Fiji

Broad reaching towards Minerva reef in circa 18 knots
Broad reaching towards Minerva reef in circa 18 knots

With so little time before we needed to be in Tual for the start of the Sail2Indonesia rally, we asked ourself how early we could sensibly depart NZ. At the end of the cyclone season, typically end of April, there is an annual cruiser migration from NZ, sailing north to warmer climates. But could we get a head start on the main fleet?

For many, their insurance company dictates May 1st as the earliest departure date. Their actuaries have analysed historical data and deemed it highly unlikely that cyclones will appear after then. However, with climate change and statistical variations, what about 2024? How can you tell when to depart based on meteorological data? We went to a seminar given by John Martin, our weather router, to find out.

Tropical cyclones typically form over large bodies of relatively warm water. Evaporated water from the ocean surface is the fuel. When this moist air rises and cools, it condenses providing energy to 'feed' the cyclone. Cyclones, therefore, typically occur close to the equater and in the hotter summer months as there is an abundance of warm water. Monitoring sea temperaatures allows you to see when the risk of cyclones will decrease. In 2024 the ocean temperature differences were greatly reduced between early and mid-April, suggesting that cyclone risk was ' significantly reduced by mid April.

Secondly, south Pacific weather is affected by the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO). This effect is created by enhanced convection, originally over the western Indian Ocean, but which migrates eastwards, eventually affecting the western Pacific before dying out and a new cycle beginning. Again the convection of warm, moist air is beneficial for cyclone formation. In April, the energy(low) and position of the MJO is such that it will not be encouraging cyclones.

Thirdly, there is the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ). Around the equator, there is an area of 'no wind'. Except, it is not around the equator. The exact position and width (degrees of latitude),which the SPCZ occupies, continuously changes. By the end of April, the SPCZ should have moved north of Fiji and, therefore, not affect the NZ departure date. However, it has been breaking all the rules and an earlier departure would risk running out of wind around Minerva reef and having to motor for a few days.

When these three indicators are all positive, then it is time to look for a weather window. In the southern hemisphere the wind rotates clockwise around a low. These depressions track from east to west across New Zealand

Weather system with low pressure south eastt of NZ
Low pressure has moved to bottom right of picture. The wind, circulating cllockwide, generates a strong southerly wind to take you northwards

.Therefore, a good time to depart is just after a low pressure system has passed and is East, South East of Opua. Then the western edge of the low will generate southerly winds, giving a broad reach or reach towards Minerva reef.

This year, the 'perfect' weather window was scheduled to appear on May 1st. The insurance actuaries were correct! Given the hundred or so boats waiting to depart, we booked a 'clearing out' slot with NZ customs five days prior, hoping the forecast would not change. By booking early, we had the first 08.30 appointment.

The day before departure is alway hectic with final preparations and last goodbyes etc. We needed to have gas bottles filled. We had friends, Julian and Cara (SV Taurus), heading to Whangarei for the day and they agreed to do the necessary. We also hitched a ride to the local supermarket with Jackie (SV Wainani) to do our 'perishables' shopping. It took all day to get these jobs done, prepare the first three days meals and get everything stowed properly. Fortunately, everything was completed in time to enjoy sundowners and eat before heading to the yacht club

to meet up with various friends for a 'last night in NZ' party.

After clearing out and paying our marina bill, we finally cast off around 10.00 and motored downriver into the bay. It was only after we cleared TikiTiki Rock and ventured out into the open sea that the wind arrived and we could turn off the engine. The wind was indeed from the SW as forecast and increased as we got further from land. By 15.00 we needed the second reef but that did not see us through the night. After midnight, with gusts of up to 30 knots we elected to add a third to make sailing  the early hours more managable.

Sunset on our first day out from NZ
Sunset on our first day out from NZ

The wind was not the only thing to contend with that first night. It was cold. Really cold. Really, really, cold. North Atlantic Cold. Despite thermal underwear, a rugby shirt a fleece, a baggy woollen jumper and then offshore gear on top, I shivered all through the night. We had looked forward to warmer climate in Fiji as the NZ winter approached. But first, we had some suffering to do.

We were heading directly for the Minerva reefs. These are slightly to the east of the direct course to Savu Savu. There were various reasons to pick this route. Firstly, it is recommended to gain some easting before getting too far north and into the prevailing SE trade winds. In addition, heading for the Minerva reefs gives you the option to stop there, either to enjoy the lobster, hide from bad weather, or wait for the SPCZ to move north. And with the wind initially from the south west, and later the south, we enjoyed four days of fast, downwind sailing (see top photo) from NZ, almost to the Minervas.

On the second day we saw an albatross. Yes, really. There was a bird scouring the sea several hundred metres downwind of us. Then it banked to soar and the extent of its wingspan told us that it could only be one thing. I called to Denise and we watched in awe as it covered the carpet of ocean so effortlessly. We were so enthralled that we hardly noticed that its hunting pattern was bringing it closer and closer to Skyfall. The bird cruised past within 30 metres and I suddenly thought, 'camera'. But it was too late. Sorry, no photo.

Broad reaching towards Minerva reef
Broad reaching towards Minerva reef

However, on the evening of the fourth day, still 150nm shy of Minerva, the clouds started to look more ominous and, with the wind forecast to move abeam, we put in a second reef. The boat initially handled the building conditions well, eating up the miles on a fast, but controlled reach. Yet, with Denise coming on watch at midnight and the wind still building, we needed to make a decision: either reef again, or bear away to head directly to Savu Savu. We opted for the latter. The thirty degree change of course immediately brought the wind aft of the beam and settled the boat. We had visited North Minerva reef on the way to NZ so I did not mind too much missing 'the experience'. Also, there was a high pressure area forecast to cover the area with little or no wind within 24 hours and, by sailing fast and heading due north, I hoped to stay out of that area.

After five days sailing, we were already North of the Minerva reefs, with 390nm to go to Savu Savu. The wind had dropped significantly in the early hours, allowing us to deploy our light wind secret weapon, 'Little Pinky', at first light. it was the first time Denise had seen an asymmetric or a furling system, but the sail came out trouble free and we were away. We found a relatively consistent 12-14 knots of wind, just enough to keep us moving north quickly. According to Predictwind, we would be using Little Pinky for two days, with gusts not forecast to exceed 18 knots on any of the forecasts.

Yet, on day seven, my eyes told me otherwise. The approaching dark and angry looking clouds persuaded me to put Little Pinky away, and even add a reef. Just as well. Within an hour we had 18-20 knots from the south, allowing us to make good time sailing wing-on-wing directly towards Savu Savu.

I have talked about both 'hitch hikers' and our steering systems before. (Our hydrovane is known as Brian and the autopilot has earned the nickname 'la Pinta'). On this seventh day, I have to combine the stories. We took on three hitch hikers. Three swallows (I think, very small birds with distinct swallow tails) decided to join us and spend some time resting and pruning themselves on the leeward guardrail. At the time, I had handed control to 'La Pinta' and I noticed that one of the hitch hikers was watching how the steering was done. Then, all of a sudden, one of the three flew across to take over the helm. For ten minutes he showed us how it should be done before getting bored and flying back to join his fellow hitch hikers.

Skyfall, being helmed by a hitch hiker
Skyfall, being helmed by a hitch hiker

Our last night at sea was a complete contrast to our first. Sailing 20 degrees of latitude closer to the equator certainly makes a difference! Each night had (thankfully) become progressively warmer. Now, for the night shift I was sporting shorts, teeshirt and an unzipped fleece. Although, by midnight, we were already closing in on the main island, Viti Levu, we still had to negotiate the islands and reefs guarding the entrance to the Koro Sea and sail circa 70nm further to Savu Savu. It was touch and go if we would arrive before dark.

Time to consult our weather router, John. He advised that, although the approach to the mouth of the creek is 'safe' in the dark, negotiating the creek at dark without assistance is not advised. There is a buoyed, relatively narrow channel up the creek which is easy in daylight but, as the buoys are unlit, not recommended at night. We needed a back up plan. There is an anchorage a few nm before the creek but it is fairly deep (10m+) and foul. Therefore, anchoring at night, there is a reasonable chance you will have the chain or anchor wrapped around coral. Fortunately, there is a backup plan. If you take a mooring with Cupra Shed marina, then they will send a boat to meet you off the commercial wharf at the entrance to the creek. It is then straightforward to follow up the channel to your mooring.

Inside the Koro Sea the waves were almost non existent. The wind was light but sailable (9-12 knots). Little Pinky again saved the day. Sailing deep, we were within 15 degrees of the rhumb line to Savu Savu and sailing at 6 knots. Only mid afternoon, did the wind swing such that Savu savu was directly downwind of us. We decided to drop the asymmetric, go wing-on-wing and turn on the engine.

The strategy worked. We tied up to the mooring ball after sunset but before it was dark. I had to turn on the foredeck lights to put Skyfall to bed. But we had arrived. And John would have to modify the presentaion for his seminar. he had recommended Savu Savu as his favoured Fijian arrival port and declared it a 8-12 day sail. Now he has to say a 7-12 day sail!

We got up early the next day to prepare for the clearing in procedures. According to the website, there are strict rules on what food can be brought in. Our passage had been faster than planned and we had not stopped at Minerva so there were excess provisions to worry about.We had taken fresh meat for around seven days and managed to consume that. Similarly, after passing on the Minerca reefs, we had switched to double rations of fruit and we were almost done there. Similarly, it is amazing how layers of cheese enhance most recipes. But we still had excess cheese, vegtables and, more importantly tinned fish. We had not realised that Fiji confiscate any tinned fish (according to their biosecurity website). As honest citizens, we laid it out ready for inspection. Bernie, our mascot, was not impressed and promised to guard it with his life.

Our mascot, Bernie, guarding the tinned fish
Our mascot, Bernie, guarding the tinned fish

Suffice is to say, after the whole procedure had been completed (around 14.00), and the quarantine, biosecurity, customs and immigration had left us with approval to go ashore, the canned fish was still on board and Bernie was looking very pleased with himself.

Our beaurocracy was not yet done though. We still had to get to a bank to find local currency, then traipse around the various offices paying the bills accumulated through the clearing in procedure (total FJ$390, the most expensive process we have ever encountered), before finding local SIM cards and filling in forms in the marina office. By 16.30 it was done. Although we were now free to explore Fiji by land, Skyfall was still restricted to its mooring until we had a cruising permit. We were just in time for sundowners.

I write this six days after our arrival. Sailing from NZ to Fiji was fast and trouble free. However, the pace and inefficiency of the system frustrates me. We finally received our cruising permit at 17.00 today. But the creek is delightful and we have managed to fill our days.

Skyfall on a Copra Shed Marina mooring buoy in the creek, Savu Savu
Skyfall on a Copra Shed Marina mooring buoy in the creek, Savu Savu

We are now off to Taveuni, an island one days sail upwind, for a two week diving holiday.

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Wow, another tremendous post. It is so much fun to hear about the weather patterns in different parts of the world, as we only have experience in the North Atlantic! Wishing you a great time in Fiji. Ithaka is currentlty in Sweden, and we will pick her up at the end of June for a summer season in the Baltic. Fingers crossed for a sunny summer. Best, David and Kitty SV Ithaka

May 16
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Thanks for that. The Baltic is on the list once Skyfall is back in Europe. I will be picking your brains then


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