Learning to Sail in the Bay of Islands (While the World Falls Apart)

We’d been looking forward to sailing in the Bay of Islands since we arrived in New Zealand five months ago. In fact, we first discovered this was one of the best places to learn to sail a yacht on our first trip to the country 12 years ago.

We’d earned our Competent Crew certificates while living aboard a yacht in Malaysia, but that was six years ago and we made the mistake of not practising our skills afterwards. Now we could no longer remember how to tie a bowline knot or what the difference between a tack and gybe was.

This time would be different. On Great Escape’s course we’d spend three days living on a sailing boat in their boatyard in Opua and going out with an instructor during the day.

Once we’d proved ourselves competent, we’d head out on our own to explore the islands for three days. We weren’t convinced we’d be capable of being captains of our own boat, but we were excited to try.

But by the time the start of our course came around, learning a new skill was the last thing we wanted to do.

It was mid-March and in the previous week Italy had gone into lockdown, the US had banned visitors from Europe, our blog traffic and income were tanking, and we knew we’d likely have to cancel our upcoming French Polynesia and Hawaii plans.

It was a lot to take in and we were tired and stressed and sad.

But in New Zealand there were still no restrictions and only a handful of virus cases, so we somewhat reluctantly went ahead with the course as planned.

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Day 1 (Sailing Instruction)

Discovery yacht at Great Escape boatyard in Opua, Bay of Islands

Discovery, our home for the next 6 days

After checking in at Great Escape’s floating dock, we loaded our gear onto Discovery, the little 25-foot Noelex yacht that would be our home for the next six days.

It was certainly cosy but came equipped with everything we needed to cook, and we’d later pick up the bedding and towels we’d rented.

In the main cabin two bunks acted as couches during the day and beds at night. At the end of each was a covered area where we could store our gear (it’s always a good idea to pack light when sailing). In between was a two-burner stove and a sink with running drinkable water (we could fill up the water tanks at the dock). There was no fridge but we could buy ice for the icebox under the stairs.

In the bow of the boat was a tiny cabin that could be used for sleeping, but it also housed the head (toilet), so we stuck with the main cabin.

Our instructor Martin had spent a few years sailing from Germany to New Zealand so he certainly had plenty of experience. After giving us a tour of the boat we started with some theory including how sails work and how to navigate at sea by plotting courses on charts. It was more complicated than I’d imagined and involved having to do maths do calculate the difference between true north and magnetic north.

I struggled to absorb all the new information, but Simon seemed to be picking it up, and Martin mentioned a GPS app we could get—a reassuring backup in case our understanding of traditional methods failed us.

By late morning we were heading out into the bay and putting theory into practice. I’d hoped that my previous sailing experience would come back to me, but things felt different on the smaller boat which uses an outboard engine and tiller instead of a wheel to steer.

We practised tacking and gybing, heading the boat into and out of the wind, and trying to sail by feel rather than theory. It didn’t come easily and I was relieved when we anchored in the shelter of an island for a lunch break.

The afternoon was much the same—practice, practice, practice.

It was a tough day with so much information to absorb, and by the time we returned to the dock, we were exhausted. At least we’d had no time or energy to think about the dreaded virus.

Despite our plans to cook, we opted to get dinner and a drink in the Opua Cruising Club instead and attempted to revise with the sailing handbook we’d been given.

We left before the St Patrick’s Day celebrations got going, and after a shower in the boatyard, it was time for an early night. We found it difficult to sleep, though, on the firm bunks with the boat being rocked in the wake of the ferry.

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Day 2 (Sailing Instruction)

Simon sailing yacht in Bay of Islands on Great Escape course

Our lunch spot on Day 2

Our second day out sailing with Martin was still challenging and exhausting, but there were moments when I felt I was finally getting it. When the wind is just right and you find the ideal course, it’s a fantastic feeling to be powering along under the sails.

We had some stronger winds when the boat was heeling over into the waves. Martin assured us there was no way for it to tip over, but it was a little alarming, if also exhilarating.

We were frazzled again by the end of the day so had dinner in the yacht club where we worked on our route planning for the next day.

Chart planning with a beer at Opua Cruising Club

Charting a course

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Day 3 (Sailing Instruction)

Our final day of training—by the end of the day we needed to be competent enough to take the yacht out on our own. I wasn’t convinced we’d get there.

Today we went much further than usual, using the course we (really Simon) had plotted on our chart. We checked the weather on the radio and called in our trip plan, then headed out towards Motuarohia Island (also known as Roberton Island).

Unfortunately, the wind wasn’t cooperating with our plan, and after some very slow sailing we were forced to motor instead. This disappointment was quickly alleviated when a pod of bottlenose dolphins swam past, playing in the water as they went.

We anchored in Cook’s Cove on Motuarohia Island where Captain Cook and his crew had anchored Endeavour in 1769. It was time to practice our dinghy skills to get to the island.

While Simon’s rowing could have been faster (and straighter), we made it to the island where we took a short walk up a hill for stunning views of the bay and surrounding islands.

Our dinghy on Roberton Island in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Our dinghy on Roberton Island

The view from Motuarohia Island aka Roberton Island in New Zealand's Bay of Islands

The view from Roberton Island

Back in Opua that evening we ate takeout pizza from the shop and returned to the yacht club to plan our passage for the next day. This time we’d be on our own, and if we didn’t have a good plan we wouldn’t be allowed to take the boat out.

We’d managed to avoid the news for the last few days, but today our local friend sent us an update—New Zealand had closed its borders.

We wouldn’t be kicked out, but it gave us some clarity—it was no time to travel. We needed to cancel our plans and try to get a visa extension to stay in the country. That would have to wait though.

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Day 4 (Solo Sailing)

Erin and Simon sailing the Bay of Islands on a Great Escape course

Sailing by ourselves!

This is when the fun would really begin. For the next three days we were in sole command of Discovery and could head wherever we wanted in the Bay of Islands.

First though, we had to show Julie (Great Escape’s owner) our passage plan and answer a few questions to convince her we knew what we were doing. By this stage, I wasn’t confident in my own abilities, but I did have faith in Simon as our skipper and Julie seemed to as well.

The day’s sailing started well with ideal conditions and we felt fairly confident sailing up through the channel. Past Tapeka Point the wind picked up, though, and we were heeling over just above the waves.

We possibly should have put a reef in the sail at this point (to reduce the size and get more control), but that seemed harder than continuing on.

It did shake me up a bit, though, and I was also nervous about our first solo anchoring experience. We reached our planned overnight destination, Waiwhapuku Bay, known as Army Bay, on Moturua Island by mid-afternoon as we’d powered along all morning.

We managed to anchor just fine, but the bay wasn’t as sheltered as we’d expected and our little boat was rocked from side to side. As we were exhausted we decided to stay and hoped the wind would die down as the weather forecasted.

I managed to have a nap despite the rockiness while Simon stayed on deck obsessively checking that we were firmly anchored and not drifting.

In late afternoon we rowed our dinghy to the beach and took a walk on Moturua which is known for its birdlife due to the lack of predators.

The beach at Waiwhapuku Bay, known as Army Bay, on Moturua Island in New Zealand's Bay of Islands

A beach all to ourselves on Moturua Island!

We were amazed by how many native birds we saw and how close they got to us. We saw plenty of Tui, with their shimmering blue-green feathers, as well as the rare black and brown Tieke (North Island Saddleback) with a distinctive call and the vibrant green, red-faced Kakariki (Red-Crowned Parakeet).

Hiking on Moturua Island, Bay of Islands
View from walking trail on Moturua Island, Bay of Islands
Moturua Island, Bay of Islands

You can just about see Discovery in the bay below

As the sun had come out, I decided to swim back to the boat and lingered in the water enjoying the beauty of the spot.

Afterwards, I had a deck shower with a kettle of water and some shampoo (it foams better than soap) and sat in the sun appreciating how lucky we were to spend the night here. Any stresses of the day were forgotten.

Anchored at Army Bay on Moturua Island, Bay of Islands, New Zealand

We managed to make our first onboard dinner (pasta with jarred sauce) and settled in for a rocky night with the discomfiting sound of the keel banging beneath us. We both struggled to sleep, but it was even worse for Simon who was alarmed by all the noises he heard and concerned we were drifting.

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Day 5 (Solo Sailing)

We woke up to the sun rising, and despite our deep tiredness, managed to drag ourselves onto the dinghy and over to the island for an early morning walk. We didn’t see as many birds as the previous afternoon, but it was wonderfully peaceful and the sky was lit up in shades of orange.

Sunrise at Army Bay on Moturua Island in the Bay of Islands

When we returned to Discovery, Simon realised that the rudder was stuck out of the water. We later learnt we should have left it down, but we were used to tying it up in the boatyard due to the shallow water.

We knew that sailing involves lots of problem solving, but we hadn’t expected to run into an issue quite so soon. Simon spent the next hour doing battle with the rudder—pulling and banging it, jumping into the chilly water and pulling it some more.

We called Great Escape and they gave some helpful advice, but it was still a process, and Simon ended up bruised, cut, achy, cold, and exhausted. All before the day had even properly begun.

As Simon restored himself with chocolate hobnobs, more news from the outside world came in—New Zealand had announced a 4-stage alert system and we were now on Level 2.

This limited non-essential domestic travel, so our friends had to cancel their plans to visit us. We also learnt that French Polynesia had closed its borders. Getting our visa extension was certainly our priority as soon as we were back on the mainland.

It’s so much easier to let the news go when you’re out on a boat in a beautiful place and scrolling your phone obsessively isn’t an option, and we headed off on another day of exploring the islands.

It was an easy day’s sailing as we didn’t have far to go. After checking out a few bays, we decided on Akeake Bay on the northern side of Urupukapuka Island for our lunch spot. It was a pretty little beach backed by lush green hills. We were too tired to tackle the walking trails, but I swam to shore and wandered along the beach.

Anchored at Akeake Bay on Urupukapuka Island

Our lunch spot at Akeake Bay on Urupukapuka Island

Otehei Bay on the other side of Urupukapuka was our destination for the night. Great Escape have a mooring there, so we didn’t have to stress about getting the anchoring right.

Pulling up alongside a buoy and hooking it at the right moment has its own challenges, but we surprised ourselves by managing it on the first go.

Otehei Bay was lovely with crystal clear water and beaches on all sides. There’s also a cafe here so we eagerly rowed to shore with thoughts of beer and ice-cream on our minds. Devastatingly, it was only open from 11am – 2pm at this time of year, and we’d missed it. The disappointment was intense.

Despite the heat and not feeling like hiking (we’d planned on sitting down with a cold drink first), we continued on one of the island’s trails to Sunset Bay, which I’d spotted as we’d sailed past.

Luckily, it only took us about 20 minutes to reach it and the views on the way were gorgeous—what a stunning lush island. (Two months later we returned to Urupukapuka Island and hiked the whole way around it which is well worth doing). 

Otehei Bay from walking trail on Urupukapuka Island

Otehei Bay from above

Walking barefoot on grass on Urupukapuka Island in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Sunset Bay was a perfect little cove of golden sand backed by bush-covered hills. And we had it all to ourselves. It reminded me of Thailand as we swam in the clear turquoise water.

Sunset Bay on Urupukapuka Island in Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Gorgeous Sunset Bay

Back on Discovery we ate rice and beans for dinner, watched a beautiful sunset, and fell asleep with a view of the stars out the window. Despite the challenging start, it had been an amazing day.

Sunset while sailing the Bay of Islands at Otehei Bay on Urupukapuka Island

Day 6 (Solo Sailing)

We wished we could linger and explore more of the island, but due to predicted strong winds in the afternoon we needed to get an early start on our return to Opua.

Despite the forecast it wasn’t windy at all as we headed back and we made painfully slow progress.

Hours later, the wind really did pick up, though, and we weren’t ready.

We knew we needed to reef the sail, but we’d only practised it once and not in such strong winds. I tried to face the boat into the wind to keep it still but I couldn’t keep control. I was terrified the boom would swing around and knock Simon over as he struggled to wrestle the sail into place.

It was stressful and scary and we realised we had no idea what we were doing. We gave up, took the sails down and motored instead.

Back in the relatively protected channel, we decided to give it another go—we didn’t want to end our sailing adventure using the engine rather than the sails. But again we struggled in the fierce wind and had to admit defeat.

Motoring back to the boatyard early in the pouring rain wasn’t the ideal end to our trip, but at least we’d made it.

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Back to Reality

Our Bay of Islands sailing experience was exhausting, challenging, and at times, terrifying.

We also experienced magical moments of blissful calm. We spent the nights anchored in gorgeous bays watching the sunsets and sunrises and the stars liven up the sky. We took barefoot walks on tranquil islands, saw rare native birds and dolphins, and swam in the sea. And there’s nothing like sailing when the wind is just right.

We were bruised and sunburnt by the end, but we’d also enjoyed a much-needed escape from reality.

Back on the mainland everything had changed. The day after we returned, a total lockdown in New Zealand was announced.

Luckily, we had a beautiful Airbnb booked nearby so we’re hunkering down here. It’s disappointing not being able to explore more of Northland, but we’re so glad we took our sailing trip and visited some of the beautiful islands before the world shut down.

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Bay of Islands Sailing Course Details

We did the 6-day: Learn to sail then sail yourself adventure with Great Escape Sailing who are based in Opua in the Bay of Islands.

You can choose to get Yachting New Zealand and International Yacht Training qualifications as part of the course, but we opted against this as we already have a RYA Competent Crew certificate.

The course costs from NZD $890 per sailor on a Davidson 20, but we opted to upgrade to the larger Noelex 25 boat which costs NZD $1190 per sailor. We wouldn’t have wanted a smaller boat. There are additional costs for fuel, insurance and optional linen for your three days self-sail. Our total cost for two people was NZD $2560 (USD $1536). 

Great Escape offers a range of sailing courses and bareboat charters if you already have sailing experience.

The courses are operated on-demand with a minimum of two sailors. They are really friendly so feel free to contact owner Julie if you have any questions.

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