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Marlborough Sounds Cruising Guide
An online cruising guide for yachts sailing around the Marlborough Sounds -- including Pelorus Sound and Queen Charlotte Sound and the attached bays and inlets.
Considered by many to be one of the premier cruising grounds in New Zealand, the Marlborough Sounds are at the northern end of the South Island. It contains many deep and protected bays, fjords and sounds, including the Queen Charlotte Sound, the Peolorus Sound, the Kenepuru Sound, Crail Bay, Beatrix Bay and others.
Anchoring and Moorings
The best bays are deep but not particularly good holding which means that a lot of chain has to be put out (and got back in) to be safe but still watch the swinging room. Picking up a mooring is so easy and casting off is even easier. Rafting up with other members happens occasionally. The limitations are total of 30 tonnes or 5 boats to a mooring. And they are good people, usually with good fenders.
Join the Mana Cruising Club for the Moorings
I am sure that if I emailed the Mana Cruising Club (MCC) in Wellington we could arrange a temporary membership or some such. I will make enquiries and I would of course propose you for membership if you so wish. It may not be cheap but well worth it. Two other local clubs share with MCC the ownership and expenses of laying and maintaining the moorings. Their members likewise have use of the moorings. As an alternative you could approach them for membership or temporary membership.
For information about Mana see Mana Harbour. The MCC is located just next to the marina.
Dodging Most Of Cook Strait
There is no worries getting east from Nelson through to the Pacific and the East Coast of the South Island. You do not really have to go out into Cook Strait at all. There is a fine sail along the protected north coast of the South Island with suitable anchorages all the way. No night sailing necessary. In fact I restrict my movements on this coast to daylight hours. The Marlborough Sounds are a huge and wonderful cruising ground. Although we live in Dunedin 500nm away, we have been a member of Wellington based Mana Cruising Club for 35 years, and I am the Dunedin MCC Port Captain. The reason for me being a member of a Wellington club is that MCC has about eighty big private moorings in the best bays in both Queen Charlotte Sound and Pelorus Sound to which members only can secure. Once you are a member there is no charge. If you are not a member you are not at liberty to use these moorings at all.
French Pass (south of D'Urville Island)
See French Pass.
Across the Tops
Across the Tops, between the two sounds, is fine scenery where you thread your way between various islands and headlands. It is our favourite 30nm of water because of the dramatic seascape and it is sheltered from the Tasman or Pacific rollers. The Sounds are sparsely settled except for small clusters of cribs (South Island lingo for shack) or bachs (North Island lingo for shack). Most have their own boats and private jetties.There are few or no roads and transportation is largely by boat. Water taxis run from Picton in QSS and Havelock in PS and there are boats that take fishing parties to the Outer Sounds where the best fishing is.
If you intend fishing DO obtain a copy of the Marlborough Sounds fishing regulations before dropping a line over the side.
Pass the Three Capes
Once you are passed the entrance to Pelorus Sound you double the three capes i.e. Alligator Head, Cape Lambert and Cape Jackson. This stretch can be a stunning sail. Cape Jackson reminds me of the outline of Gibraltar, but with the high end to seaward.
Cape Jackson is a slender, snake-like, rocky peninsula jutting into Cook Strait about 30 miles east of Stephens Island. In 2001 the official Cape Jackson Light was moved to the small modern tower at the tip of the peninsula. But the old lighthouse (still in service) on a bare rock about 650 m (0.4 mile), and so provides a channel to pass off the end of the peninsula.
At Cape Jackson in good weather during daylight take the narrow passage between the old lighthouse and the Cape. If the passage between the Cape and the lighthouse is not passable (due to any of bad weather, darkness or sailing against the stream) then it's far safer to travel well out past Walker Rock. If possible avoid the area in bad weather. The Russian cruise ship Mikhail Lermentov wrecked here in 1986 trying to pass between the lighthouse and the mainland.
The tides are again interesting especially the standing breaking wave that does not indicate a rock, only an underwater cliff. There is plenty of water through this passage and rocks shown on the chart are well below your draft. The recommended route is to divide the Pass into three and go one third from the headland i.e. not through the middle, on a course of SE(T). Good fishing here on the western side. See where the tourists fishing launches drift around.
If you're heading south to round Cape Jackson it's best to make a decision as early as possible as to whether you'll pass through the channel or go out past the reef. So no closer than a mile to the Cape make your decision and if you have doubts about the channel then head off to give the reef a good 500 mtr clearance. Don't be tempted to run along parallel to the north of Walkers Rock and the reef; the current can be very strong and the sea very rough. When the tide is flooding into QSS the water is running out (west) in this pass and vice versa the opposite of what you would expect.
The advice of local old salts is that's best to arrive Cape Jackson at about high tide Wellington as this should be slack water. The NZ Pilot states 'the flood stream commences about -0030 Wellington and the ebb stream about +0530 Wellington'.
Delatbabel -- just a note from me on the above comment about passing close to Cape Jackson. There was a fair old north wester blowing at the time I approached the cape, and by eyeball and binoculars I could see about a 3 metre rolling surf running through this passage. So I went north of Walkers Rock. It wasn't best fun, with the wind shifting in 3 different directions at once but there was no way I was going to take my boat through that surf.
There be Dragons off The Brothers
If planning not to go up to Picton Marina or Waikawa Marina, but to force on south down the east coast of the South Island towards Banks Peninsula, double Cape Koamaru, the northern corner of Arapawa Island and pass between Arapawa Island and the Brothers. Strong tides, whirlpools and dragons live hereabouts. On one occasion I did 11.5kts over the ground with only 18kts of breeze. Any bits of wind that have nothing much to do that day will gather at the Brothers. It could be the second windiest place in NZ so be aware. Listen for "The Brothers" on the marine forecast and you will get some idea. Take the tide and if you cannot you shouldn't be there but if you do have the tide and weather go for it and sail down Arapawa Island's east coast 1.5nm off. You are now in the Pacific Ocean. Cook Strait meteorological area continues 25nm south to Cape Campbell, but is not in the Strait's main wind flow. Watch for Awash Rock 2.5nm south of The Brothers. When clear of the rock turn slightly to port to set course for Cape Campbell.
Delatbabel -- In December 2013 I transited between Cape Koamaru and The Brothers. It is indeed a windy place. In addition to the warning about the wind speed, there were many eddies and overfalls throughout the region, both north and south of Cape Koamaru, all of which made my autopilot very sad and depressed. Navigating with a mk.1 eyeball and keeping a firm hand on the helm in this region, at least for the time it takes to pass around Cape Koamaru, would be well advised.
Tasman to the Pacific
Well that is a fun way of getting across the North Coast of the South Island from Nelson to the Pacific without really getting your feet wet or going out into Cook Strait. It is a broad outline only. Much more detail will be gleaned from the NZ Pilot, the cruising guides, the charts and your chart plotter. I have been sitting here at my iPad dragging all this stuff out of my head and there is lots more in there about this passage.
Marlborough Sounds Bay by Bay
This section is ordered roughly in the order that a cruiser travelling from Nelson eastwards through the strait and onwards to South Island ports such as Christchurch (Lyttleton) or Dunedin would take. To continue onwards and southwards after reading this, head for the South Island, East Coast page.
Pelorus Sound is the largest of the Marlborough Sounds. Pelorus Sound has a main channel which winds south from Cook Strait for about 55 kilometres, between steeply sloped wooded hills, until it reached its head close to Havelock town. Pelorus has several major arms, notably Tennyson Inlet, Tawhitinui Reach, Kenepuru Sound and the Crail/Clova/Beatrix Bay complex.
You can cruise Pelorus Sound, which has lots of anchorages and club moorings, right up to Havelock where there is fuel, supply sources, some repairs and the Slip Inn restaurant facing the launching ramp in the marina. Good seafood.
Queen Charlotte Sound
If you intend heading for Picton turn to starboard, south into Queen Charlotte Sound. There are many lovely bays, good moorings and anchorages in this Sound. The bays on the western side of the sound have the better shelter. There is more habitation and a few more roads than in Pelorus. Take your time, there is lots to explore. There are three charming resorts with free moorings for the night and good food. If tired of the cooking from your onboard Genius in the Galley (or visa versa) all you need is VHF contact to book in for dinner. Crew changes or shopping can be expedited by water taxi to anywhere in the Sounds. All you need is the fare and your VHF or cellphone contact.
This part of the Sounds was Captain James Cook's favourite anchorage at which he spent much time on all his three voyages to NZ. He restored his crews health with the plentiful supply of antiscurbotics, fish and fowl, as well as doing the business of charting the Sounds. Look into Ship Cove to see the commemorative truncated pyramid monument. At least it is vandal proof. There is fresh water available at the wharf but it is too shallow, lumpy and busy for anything but a brief visit. Anchor off the wharf for a short stay or pick up one of the two MCC moorings tucked into the north and the south corners of the bay. Go ashore and see. Outward Bound attendees sail and row their 32ft naval cutter all the way from Anakewa, in the southern end of QSS, and back just for fun.
Cook climbed Long Island to get a high unobstructed view of the sound and claimed this part of NZ for the British Crown. Half way along the western side of the island there is a small landing wharf so you can do likewise and visit the lookout and commemorative plaque etc built there by the MCC. Anchor off and dinghy in. There is another MCC mooring at the south end of Long Island.
Alternative Route to the Pacific
If you do not have the tide and the weather go south into Queen Charlotte Sound and enter Tory Channel on its the eastern side. Anchor (or if a member, pick up the MCC mooring) in Hitaua Bay, second bay on the south side of the channel. When slept, feed and watered proceed down Tory Channel to the Pacific and set course for Cape Cambell.
The Bad Ferries
Be constantly watchful of the Picton to Wellington ferries. They are 5,000 tonnes, steam silently at 15kts and are dangerous. Their route is from Picton is out through Tory Channel, across Cook Strait to Wellington. The Channel is narrow and ferries cannot alter course to avoid a small vessel. They have absolute right of way. When in Picton/Tory Channel area a plan is to check out their sailing times on the web, by phone or at the terminal in Picton; remembering they sail both ways. They announce their intended passage through the eastern entrance of Tory Channel on VHF Ch 16 ten minutes before they arrive.
The Central New Zealand Cruising Guide is available from all NZ yacht chandlers. An MCC member wrote the text, another did the maps and the MCC published the the guide. It covers Cook Strait and the Marlborough Sounds in great detail with hand drawn mud maps, descriptions of every bay and the tidal streams of Cook Strait, French Pass (Aumiti) and Tory Channel. There is also a photo cruising guide for the west side of Tasman Bay including Abel Tasman National Park. The table-topped reefs in that area are best seen at low water to scare the pants of you. Tides in Tasman Bay have a spring range of 4.5m which is twice the usual range around the coast. Tides east of French Pass in the Sounds have a spring range of 2.5m. Strange?
Area charts and cruising guides are available from Burnsco yacht chandlers in Nelson, and Waikawa Marina, near Picton in Queen Charlotte Sound. Most yacht chandlers around the country will carry these books and maybe the Marlborough Sound charts.
- Land Information NZ
- Chart NZ 614 Tasman Bay
- Chart NZ 6151 Approaches to Te Aumiti (French Pass) and Plans in the Marlborough Sound.
- Chart NZ 615 Marlborough Sounds (both sounds)
- Chart NZ 6152 Pelorus Sound and Havelock
- Chart NZ 6153 Queen Charlotte Sound
- Chart NZ 62 Wellington to Kaikoura
- Chart NZ 6212 Two Plans NE Coast (Port Underwood and Kaikoura)
Three things to remember about the Sounds: They are bigger than you think, can be windy and are quite deep. Use the recommended moorings or anchorages. In strong conditions the wind may swirl in some anchorages. Winds tend to blow out of the bays and sometimes you may actually see yachts carrying spinnakers meeting head on.
You are only a few miles from Cook Strait but none-the-less sheltered but always have a keen weather eye and an ear cocked. Sometimes you can hear Cook Strait talking to you. Listen to the voices (and the VHF forecast).
Sources for weather information
See the Climate and Weather section of the New Zealand page, paying attention to the information there about the accuracy or lack thereof of the weather forecasts. The Marlborough Sounds are in the Cook weather zone, but most of the Cook weather forecast can be disregarded for the sounds themselves.
Regional Radio Nets
See New Zealand
Also see World Cruiser's Nets
VHF and Cellphone Coverage
The transmission from the VHF towers, strategically placed to sneak into most bays, gives good coverage. Communication is excellent and reliable but study the radio channel system for the various areas. Because of the high hills and narrow waterways cellphone coverage is probably 50%. By moving the boat, going out in the dinghy for a clearer line or climbing a hill as did Cook, it can be improved.
- A copy of the "New Zealand Cruising Guide Central Area" can be obtained at chandlers and some bookshops in the area. Although I consider it somewhat overpriced for the information it contains, it does have a useful set of guides to some of the nearby anchorages.
- It may be useful to consider purchasing "The New Zealand Nautical Almanac and Tide Tables", and also "The New Zealand Pilot" especially if you are considering such things as a transit of French Pass and/or Cook Strait.
Contact details of "Cruiser's Friends" that can be contacted for local information or assistance.
- If I don't see you in the Sounds, while in Nelson you could ring ring my friend Ashley Wagg who will instruct you on the best tide to depart to make French Pass/Aumiti and lots of other matters. He is a retired Master Mariner and local long time yachtie. He is knowledgeable, hospitable, abrupt, funny and a good friend - my kind of guy. He will tell you about Croisilles Harbour, where he has a crib and mooring, which is along the coast towards French Pass. He will give you the info of how to carry the tide all the way across Tasman Bay to make French Pass at slack water. At springs the current at FP can reach 7kts where the daddy dragons live, so you have to get it right.
List links to discussion threads on partnering forums. (see link for requirements).
- Marlborough Sounds on wikipedia.
- Queen Charlotte Sound on wikipedia.
- Pelorus Sound on wikipedia.
- Kenepuru Sound on wikipedia.
- Marlborough Sounds on wikivoyage.
- Delatbabel -- transited over the top of the sounds following the advice provided by Bill McIndoe, December 2013.
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