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Cook Strait 2016 - trip report

Written by Tim on February 17th, 2016.      0 comments

Cook Strait is considered by many as the hardest stretch of water to kayak across in New Zealand. It's a very narrow gap in the centre of New Zealand's topography, and consequently both the ocean and the weather rush through it. This creates unpredictable conditions including strong tides, variable winds, and big swells.

Throughout my kayaking career I've been fortunate enough to have paddled across it a number of times. This is now a specialty trip that I offer, and on average I would do one a year with customers. This year, I was approached by Haydon and Steve who were doing a big mission down the length of NZ. Their trip started at Cape Reinga, where they proceeded to cycle to Wellington. After crossing the Strait they intended to paraglide all the way down the Southern Alps to Queenstown. Truely remarkable blokes. 

I first met the lads in Wellington after they had just completed a 100+km bike ride from Masterton. They were wrecked. We only had a tiny weather window to get across the Strait and I was eager to push, pull, or drag them along. It's not often you get good weather in this part of the world so we had to take it while we could. The following day we headed out from Makara Beach (Wellington's west coast) at 12pm. Conditions were rough but I felt like they were within our safety limits. Sadly it seemed that we had missed our weather window as conditions grew steadily stronger. We were plowing through 1.5m breaking waves, and while we were making good progress I knew we couldn't last. I made the unpopular call to pull the pin. We returned to shore having paddled for nearly 3 hours and over 18km.
Kayaking Cook Strait
Photo: return to Makara Beach on Day 1 after encountering dodgy conditions. 

The following morning we returned at 5am. The forecasts looked promising but as we got within sight of the shore I exhaled and simply said 'crap'. We sat in silence for a few minutes before one of the boys quipped "it looks better than yesterday." "No it doesn't mate, see how far out those waves are breaking" I replied. We were eager to go but I knew it was bad and not going to get any better. 

Several days later we were back on the beach and paddling out at 6pm. The forecast was good variable 10-15knots and zero swell. We were soon well out from the coast and enjoying ourselves. The sun was shining, the kayaking was going well, and we felt confident of reaching Tory Channel in a couple of hours. Approximately 10km out from Arapawa Island I realised something was wrong. We were paddling hard but seemingly getting no where. We had also drifted drastically off course and were now closer to the entrance of Queen Charlotte Sound than Tory Channel. It appeared that the current had kicked up a gear and we were at it's mercy.
Kayaking Cook Strait
Photo: heading out from Makara Beach on our second attempt at kayaking across Cook Strait. 

For the next couple of hours we had to really grind. We were crawling along at 3.5km per hour and moral was getting low. "We just have to make it to the island and we'll be sweet" I told the boys. One kilometre out from the island things got really tough. The current changed directing and was running faster than we could paddle. "We're doing 6.5km per hour but I think that's backwards" I yelled out to the boys. There was no choice other than to paddle stronger and harder until we eventually found ourselves in the lee of the island. "Man, we can see why you pulled the pin last was a good day and it was still insane" Steve remarked. "Cheers for getting us across safely". 
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Photo: happy lads after successfully crossing Cook Strait. Wellington's south coast is in the background. 

After a quick food stop on a bouldery beach, we were back on the water but we had a choice. Go right and paddle with the current towards Tory Channel but potentially into a very hard spot; or go left against the current and into Queen Charlotte Sound. "I'm making the call and saying we go left. I know it's against the current but the coastline is a lot safer and we have more options once inside the sound" I told the boys. An hour later and we were rounding Cape Koamaru and into Queen Charlotte. It turned out that we were able to ride the back-eddies which the rocky island created, and we'd practically coasted the last six kilometres. "Well that's why we pay ya Tim...good call".

After a 1/2 hour break on some random beach, we continued up the sound to find us a campsite. All we required was a bit of fresh water and a flat spot for the tents. Along the way we chatted to some people fishing. They were kind enough to give the us a big red moki that one of them had speared while diving. The boys were stoked but I didn't have the heart to tell them it was considered a 'rubbish fish' by most kiwi's. We soon found a suitable bay on Arapawa Island and set up camp. We finished the day sitting next to a bonfire drinking a celebratory beer that I'd secretly stashed in my kayak.
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We woke on day two dawned well before sunrise and paddled away from our friendly campsite before 6am. Ahead of us we had a 36km paddle up Queen Charlotte Sound to Picton. In a start contrast to yesterday, today we absolutely flew along. Conditions remained beautiful all day, and we simply enjoyed the ride. The smell of manuka filled the air and millions of cicada's were our cheer squad. It was a great way to end the trip and we touched down in Picton just after lunch time.
kayaking cook strait

All up this crossing took us 15 hours of paddling for a total of 85 kilometres. It was a big trip but I knew it was always going to be possible for these exceptional blokes. If you're interested in following Haydon and Steve's adventures down NZ check out their website     

If you're interested in paddling Cook Strait with me please feel free to get in contact to discuss the details. Please note that due to the extreme nature o this trip, I am very selective about who I guide, and I don't give out info on how to do it for anyone 'just wanting to give it a go'.

Chur, Tim.      


What our customers say

quote Now I've stopped running I wanted to drop you a line to say a massive thank you for your incredible guiding services to get us across the Cook Strait. You put faith in us, with a lot of unknowns, and it was so cool how we pulled it off. It adds such a special twist to what I've achieved, and I think it will be very difficult to re-create.
It's been a very special adventure and we're so grateful for your contribution towards it.
Best wishes,
Jez Bragg. 
North Face ultra-marathon runner.
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