Thies Matzen describes an epic trip

There was a chance of not finding the Auckland Islands, but we never considered it. Up to 600m high and about ten miles wide, they should be visible from a great distance, particularly to Kicki’s sharp eyes. Instead, for the last 48 hours she’s been as seasick as I’ve ever seen her. My degree of misery isn’t far off hers and I crave some vital support after sitting drenched in the cockpit, hand-steering Wanderer III for the best part of two days and 220 miles towards that sliver of narrow wild coast.

“I need your eyes,” I call into the black hole of a cabin, sliding open the hatch and mumbling something along the lines of: “Can’t see it . . . if this continues . . . might have to turn back.” I can’t make out a thing in the gale-driven mist. Our trailing log puts us about ten miles off these New Zealand sub-Antarctic islands. We have out-sailed our distance. In order not to run into them we have been hove-to for an afternoon and a night. Now in daylight we inch forward once more, under storm jib and rolled-in main, hard on the wind.

It has been wet ever since we headed south from Stewart Island’s unsung South Cape, the southernmost save Cape Horn. In a Force 8 it’s the ocean shelf that has proved Kicki’s undoing. The 3,000m deep Southern Ocean rises here to a 200m shallow hurdle. We never saw the Snares Islands, though we must have been close, or any brightly lit squid boats.

It takes ages for Kicki to appear, dressed in her foulweather gear. Where are we? Where’s the north coast of the Auckland Islands? I don’t want to overshoot the islands and end up along their western side. There, a history rich in disasters and the cruellest of fates lingers, mainly owing to the 20-mile long, nearly inescapable crescent of 600m high cliffs stretching north to south. Supported by 40-knot winds, I have time and reason enough to form misgivings about the wisdom and luck required for finding this goddamn place.

Kicki crawls over the washboard for only the second time this trip, from a black hole into the wet hole of our cockpit. She’s more determined than me. “No way, that’s just not on,” Kicki picks up on my already forgotten mumblings. “Back to Stewart Island, without getting to the Aucklands at all? I’m not suffering for that.” She takes up her position at the mast, her small harnessed frame lifted and dropped by the waves.

The incubation time of my wish to visit the Auckland Islands has been longer than for any other destination – well over a dozen years. Once the islands had appeared on my mental horizon, they remained there, in thought yet out of reach.

Our first bid to reach them in 1995 ended in the vicinity of the Snares in the face of a southerly gale. It, and the already advanced summer, made us turn round. Attempt number two saw us stuck high and dry in a New Zealand boatyard. We had a Department of Conservation-approved visitor permit in our pockets, but no vessel in the water. The tough times on the hard drew on and we never got going. Now was it third time lucky?

The sea is hard going, water fills the cockpit time and time again. Beyond that, nothing solid can be seen. Then Kicki suddenly turns her neck, her right arm raised. “There. See it?” she makes out something beyond my visual reach. An outline. “Where?” “There.” Inspired by her conviction, I suddenly see them too – or seem to. Briefly I hover between doubt and delight, though not relief. There’s nothing there, it’s all yearned-for contours, borne by wishful minds.

One hour disappears, then another. Salt covers the rims of my eyes, penetrating more successfully into them than they into the mist. We must be close to the island. But in waters like these how close is too close?

We are now counting on luck, hoping for sun and a decent horizon. Again and again the sextant gets drenched. I repeatedly hand it to Kicki, now down below again, to dry the mirrors. One sight finally feels good. I rush below to work it out to an azimuth of 48. The perpendicular line of position is quickly drawn on the chart and cuts directly through the north shore. We are somewhere on this line. This single sight confirms that we are northwest of the Islands. I trust it – I have to. There is no other confirmation to choose from. We turn Wanderer and ease the sheets. Within half an hour the north cape works itself out of the eternal haze.

We close in on Enderby Island, only to be greeted by an abrupt increase in wind upon entering the four-mile-deep Port Ross. It is a battle of many hours under storm jib and deeply rolled main to tack towards Erebus Cove. There the 45lb CQR won’t hold and we have to change to the heavier chain. But as if the blow has just wanted to remind us of where we were, it dies away. Only then do we notice groups of Pintado petrels bathing innocently near the shore, next to blooming rata trees.

Next day’s landfall is the slowest in the history of my sailing. There is no rush, now that we’ve arrived. Various albatrosses – shy, sooty, Royal and Wandering – breed on grassy plateaus. We find the penguins deep in the woods and the love-nests of hookers, as the local sea lions are called.


This is an extract from a feature in Yachting World September 2014 issue