South Island, East Coast

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South Island, East Coast Cruising Guide

An online cruising guide for yachts transiting the east coast of the south island of New Zealand.


Remember firstly that this region is firmly within the band of winds known to all as the "roaring forties". However heading down the east cost of New Zealand you are effectively in the lee of New Zealand itself so don't be petrified. However it does pay to hug the shoreline somewhat more closely than you might be used to doing in other latitudes. As a recent politician once described it, "be alert, not alarmed".

Much of the information here has been provided by Bill McIndoe, a resident of Dunedin and a regular cruiser in the Nelson and Marlborough Sounds region.


Heading south from Marlborough Sounds

When clear of Awash Rock, on the east side of Arapawa Island turn slightly to port and set course for Cape Campbell. If conditions are rough or it is blowing SW take a big curve into Cloudy Bay to stay between the 30m and 50m line, out of the deep water, and to obtain shelter from any southerly swell coming up the coast. Cape Cambpell will give you shelter to within 2nm.

The black and white, horizontally stripped tall lighthouse is built on a low peninsula with a background of shingle cliffs. Not easy to see. It is important to calculate the Cook Strait tidal flow. Strong tides run in all this area and especially in the vicinity of the Cape and on the coast furthers south. Consult the Central NZ Cruising Guide for this information. Shepherdess Reef projects 1.5nm from the Cape. Have safety clearing courses prepared using paper chart, echo sounder, radar and plotter. There is a large isolated boulder upon which the sea breaks that marks the approximate seaward end of the reef.

It is nice to go with the current.

Double Cape Campbell and set course south down the Marlborough coast heading for a position 5nm off Kaikoura Peninsula.

Past Kaikoura

Position yourself inside the 100m line at a distance of about 4nm from the shore. The waves are smaller in the shallower water. If you get into too shallow water, where the bottom is rocky, there is the danger of crayfish pot lines and buoys. To avoid them stay 5nm clear of Kaikoura Peninsula where the water is too deep or the bottom unsuitable for them to be laid. Avoid moving within 5nm of Kaikoura in the dark.

When you have doubled Kaikoura sail down the coast then do a big sweeping curved course into Pegasus Bay to stay out of the deep water i.e. do not set a course straight for Le Bons Bay across Pegasus Bay. Banks Peninsula will then give you shelter from the southerly swell.

Christchurch / Lyttleton

See the separate page on Christchurch

Banks Peninsula

Banks Peninsula

If you think it time to anchor for a rest and a cook-up I can suggest four options:

(1) Pigeon Bay on the north side of Banks Peninsula, is the second bay along to the east from Lyttelton Harbour. Entrance is easy and it is 4nm up to the anchor position close under cliffs on the point at Holms Bay, to obtain shelter from the SE through to N. There is nothing there except you. It is rather nice but it is not on the rumb line and does take you out of your way

GPS Position: 43°40.48′S, 172°53.37′E

(2) Le Bons Bay on the north east corner of Banks Peninsula. The entrance is easy. Go 1.5nm up the bay and at the turning position (shown below) turn 90° to starboard. Anchor in what I call Yellow Buoy Bay in position (shown below) as close to the cliffs as you dare. If you close the little rocky point that forms YBB and the southern entry point of Le Bons you will avoid the incoming swell. You may see a small yellow buoy which identifies that you are in the right place. I lay an anchor parallel with the shore and a limiting anchor out to the SW in case the wind comes in from the south. If calm I can haul the bow round to face the incoming swell sneaking round the point to reduce roll. There is plenty of water. Although a bit rolly this is a worthwhile stop-over to cook a nice dinner, relax and sleep. It is another 5 hours (26nm) round and into Akaroa.

Le Bons is not suitable in E or SE winds

Turning point: 43°43.84′S, 173°06.22′E

Anchoring position: 43°44.04′S, 173°06.25′E

(3) Keep on for Akaroa. In the morning sun the Banks Peninsula cliffs are dramatic. In the afternoon they are dark and threatening. To avoid the seas stay close to the cliffs. Watch for the occasional reef off the points. Look for Pompys Piller, a handsome lump of rock.

(4) If everyone is bright eyed and bushy tailed carry on south to Taiaroa Heads, the entrance to Otago Harbour and Dunedin. If the weather is OK it might take 36 hours from Le Bons entrance to Taiaroa Heads.


Preparing the 150nm Passage and Departing from Akaroa: Carefully study the weather forecasts seeking a 32 hour window with wind direction from west through north to east. It is not pleasant to be battling a southerly front over the last 20nm of the voyage.

Depart 09:00 from Akaroa Township. This will probably be a 32 hour passage in the summer months with the 60% likelihood of NE or NW wind. You are entering the part of the country were the southerly winds and the northerly quarter winds battle for control. Get a feeling for the transit of the high pressure ridges moving across the Tasman Sea from Australia and the depressions coming up from the Great Southern Ocean, passing close to Tasmania. The Lows then cross the Tasman Sea fighting with the Highs for territory over New Zealand.

Leaving Akaroa Harbour stand on to seaward to clear the reef off Timutimu Head, on the southern side, and then set course 219°(T) across Canterbury Bight for Taiaroa Head 150nm to the south. If the tide is ebbing and there is a southerly swell running into the Harbour there will be a heavy swell at the entrance. Watch here for floating detached bull kelp. Appreciate the high and colourful vulcanic cliffs on either side. At sea there may well be a 0.5kt current, generated by the westerlies in the Tasman Sea, flowing around to the south of Stewart Island and through Foveaux Strait and up the coast. If the current is running it will be effected by the tidal stream and will run 8 hours to the North and 4 hours to the south. If there is no current the tidal stream will run 6 hours each way. There is a note on the chart that warns mariners can be set in towards the Canterbury Bight beach.

Note isolated Fish Reef lying SE 1.5nm off Katiki Point.

As long as the weather is kind and you have chosen your departure time wisely to correspond with a weather window the passage across Canterbury Bight can be a lovely sail.


I do not recommend Timaru for yachts unless you have friends there or local knowledge.

If you have picked the direct course from Akaroa to Taiaroa Heads, then with Timaru abeam you are forty miles off the coast which is below the horizon. Looking across the Canterbury Plains you can see the Southern Alps 100nm away. When off Ashburton on a clear day you can see Mount Cook (3,754m), New Zealand's highest mountain.


To enter Oamaru Harbour needs local knowledge, but I can give you an idea. Go into the Bay immediately to the north of the Harbour. Come back up close to the Holmes Wharf breakwater. Nip close round it's end and you are in. Don't believe any transit marks until they are verified by a reliable local. Call a fisherman up on Ch 62. Choose an anchorage, holding is good. The town is fascinating and worth a visit.

Approaching Taiaroa Heads

Rising above Palmerston, Pukitapu is a sharp conical hill, topped with a prominent tower, originally built in the days of sail as an aid to navigation, making it easy to identify. As you come within sight of the hills behind Dunedin the tops of the hills on Otago Peninsula, to the east, are raised. The eastern part looks like two islands but are really Sandy Mount and Mount Charle, hills on the Peninsula. They all merge and when within 8 miles you will sight Taiaroa Head lighthouse.

Locate the prominent Fairway Beacon in position 357°(T) from Taiaroa Head Lt 1.3nm. There are no hazards out here, except hitting the beacon, which is tall and hard. Look over on a bearing of about 220°(T) and you will see a gully in the cliffs that is full of white sand on Split Beach. Captain Cook described it as "remarkable" (meaning worthy of note). In front of it is Lion Rock marked on your chart. It is comforting to see something you can identify and fun that our Capt James Cook saw and noted both these features.

The Entrance to Otago Harbour

Otago Harbour

At the entrance to Otago Harbour the Taiaroa Head lighthouse is a collector's piece and any lighthouse museum would give their back teeth for such a gem. It is built high on the headland with an enviable 270° sea view. The light covers 135° guiding ships in to the port and warning passing traffic of the dangers. The next lighthouse at Cape Saunders, 9nm further south, guides shipping passed the eastern most extremity of Otago Peninsula.

Leave the Fairway Beacon to starboard and close the lighthouse to one mile and you will see the 0.8nm long South Mole on the south side of the entrance. From there you can see into the entrance and on a bearing of 187° the Directional WRG light.

Steam into the entrance between the north end of the mole and Taiaroa Head leaving the mole to starboard. Run in on the Dir light perched on a small headland ahead. When inside you will sight the red port hand piles and the green starboard hand piles. At green pile No 7 the shipping channel swings to starboard into the Cross Channel.

Steer 283°(T) and follow the channel staying on its starboard side. Two miles ahead is a orange light low on the shore which when in transit with green pile 13A on bearing 283° will lead you up the Cross Channel. If you wish to meet a big container vessel coming the other way just stay on the transit because that is where he will be.

The channel then curves to port and soon you will be abreast of Pulling Point. On the port bow you will sight the three container cranes bearing 240(T) 1.4 nm indicating the container terminal. Following the piles up harbour you will sight the Fishermans Wharf in Careys Bay.


Land Information NZ
NZ2501 -- South Island
NZ62 -- Cape Palliser to Kaikoura Peninsula
NZ63 -- Kaikoura Peninsula to Banks Peninsula
NZ64 -- Banks Peninsula to Otago Peninsula

Weather Information

A westerly wind comes towards New Zealand moisture laden from the Tasman Sea. As it rises up the western slopes of the Southern Alps the air expands, cools, reaches dew point resulting in heavy rain on the western side of the mountains. As the now dry air goes over the tops it descends on the eastern side and is compressed, becomes warm and accelerates over the plains as a typical gusty foehn wind.

If you see lenticular clouds aloft there may also be strong winds that come down at 45°. You will not see it coming. A knock down or two will sort out the sailors from the boys. In these conditions reef the sails to the gusts; down below snooze on the lee side and snib all the cupboard doors.

A lenticular cloud is a dark, isolated, cigar shaped cloud about 6nm long. In cross section it is lense shaped hence "lenticular". There will be several of these stretching back towards the mountains. It is indicative of wave shaped winds in the vertical plane, where the cloud forms at the top of the wave, and they are stationary. A well known inland Otago example is the "Taieri Pet" which is often seen east of the Taieri River near Middlemarch. It is created by the west wind formed in a wave configuration as it passes over the parallel mountain ranges of the Raggedys, Rough Ridge and Rock and Pillar. If you live under it and the westerly wind is blowing you would not get much sunshine. It sits there casting a long stationary shadow. In Middlemarch the Taieri Pet is just another local character along with the schist rocks all over the paddocks, the Taieri River full of trout and the Rock and Pillar Range covered with winter snow.

The NE is the prevailing summer wind and that is the one that you are looking for. Hoist all plain sail and set course 218°(T) for Taiaroa Heads. You will probably notice the current running north at 0.5 kts. But it is not always there. It depends on the average conditions in the Tasman. If you can see by the weather map and forecasts that a southerly will develop or a big swell Is already running up the coast, close the land to gain shelter from the Otago Peninsula. Do not be afeared of closing the coast. there are few hazards and the waves are smaller.

The southwest wind is dry and steady. Not the wind you want for going south. You can do short boards into shore and long boards out to sea. It also brings the sunshine, the fronts with strong winds and rain. I love the excitement of the sou'westerly. But not when I wish to sail south. If voyaging south the old adage was to depart early on a dying southerly. You would go to sea and beat or motor against the last of the wind. it would then die and you would motor for a while till the freshening northerly came away to complete the journey under sail.

The procedure is to gather and study your data and your assessment before you sail. Make the plan and depart when it is prudent. On this part of the coast there is no shelter and only the man-made harbours of Timaru, forty miles off the rhumb line, and Oamaru are useful.

The easterly wind is not common and does not last long. It is on its way to blow from a different direction. When it does stay in the east it brings with it unpleasant easterly sea for which we have no landmass shelter on the east coast. The generated sea will often be a cross swell with the resident southerly swell which brings lumpy conditions.

Ocean Currents and Tidal Streams

There is an irregular 0.8 knot ocean current running north up the coast. It is driven by westerlies blowing across the southern Tasman. It runs north for 8 hours and south for 4 hours because it is effected by the ebb and low of the tides on the coast. Sometimes the current is not flowing but the coastal tide then flows 6 hours each way.

Sources for weather information:

  • The TV1 weather forecasts give realistic graphics of the weather map. These are broadcast every day at 18:55.

Also see New Zealand

VHF and Cellphone Coverage

I found that both VHF and mobile phone coverage were very sketchy for the entire length of the coast. Within eyeball range of Kaikoura it was quite good, then dies again until you reach well into Pegasus Bay when the towers around Christchurch come into view.

VHF weather broadcasts are almost continual on channel 21 or 22 while transiting the coast, although their accuracy is questionable.


Books, Guides, etc.


Contact details of "Cruiser's Friends" that can be contacted for local information or assistance.


List links to discussion threads on partnering forums. (see link for requirements).



We welcome users' contributions to the Wiki. Please click on Comments to view other users' comments, add your own personal experiences or recommend any changes to this page following your visit.

  • Delatbabel -- Transited this coast in December 2013 / January 2014.

This is a usable page of the cruising guide. However, please contribute if you can to help it grow further. Click on Comments to add your personal notes on this page or to discuss its contents. Alternatively, if you feel confident to edit the page, click on the edit tab at the top and enter your changes directly.
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Names: Delatbabel

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