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Cook Strait canoe crossing

The morning light of 18 November 1995 saw Ricky Matenga and me at Makara Beach west of Wellington, making last minute adjustments to our OC1 canoes before setting off to attempt the first outrigger crossing of the Cook Strait.

The single seat OC1 is an elegant spider of a canoe, built along Hawaiíian lines as a fast inshore racer. The fibreglass hull is long and narrow, with sealed compartments front and back. An outrigger float or ama is supported on two wooden spacers or iako, all bound together, in our case with strips of bicycle inner-tube.

The paddler sits on rather than in the boat, steering with rudder pedals. A single bladed wooden paddle is used, pulled so many times on one side, so many times on the other. The OC1 is an exhilarating and stable machine to paddle. However, we were shortly to find that being alone in rising offshore seas, in tiny boats held together with rubber bands, was a little worrying. But that is getting ahead of the story.

The Cook Strait separates New Zealandís North and South Islands. At its narrowest less than 30 km, it is notorious for its treacherous currents and winds, and its unpredictability. For two years, outrigger paddlers around New Zealand had talked of a crossing, mostly in terms of the more seaworthy OC1 six-man outrigger. At least one serious attempt had been made, by Wellingtonís club Tanui-a-ika, who were turned back by rough weather.

Ricky has been paddling outriggers for seven years, having participated in New Zealandís first outrigger marathon in early 1988. Now, aged 24, he is president of Gisborneís Tairawhiti Outrigger Club, and coach and member of its OC6 team, one of New Zealandís top three crews. In 1993 he paddled the famous Hawaiíian inter-island Molokaíi to Oahu outrigger race.

Like many of his paddling colleagues, Ricky had been dreaming of the crossing for years, but unlike the others had been actively planning one for months. In April, Ricky fixed a date seven months ahead, to allow time for training and, more importantly, fund raising for the Cancer Society.

Rickyís father, a community figure, established and presided over the Gisborne outrigger club, one of his many initiatives to help youth groups, especially youth at risk. He died of cancer two years ago. Rickyís fund raising campaign included schoolsí mufti days, donation boxes left at cinemas, shops and businesses, and door to door canvassing, all supported by extensive media coverage. All this while training, running the outrigger club, caring for his wife and kids, and keeping down two jobs.

Three Gisborne based enterprises, Ngata Toa tribal surfwear, Pizza on the beach and Video Ezy, together sponsored Rickyís custom built light-weight canoe, finished in a dramatic black. The boatís name, emblazoned in white along the hull, is Ngaru Toa, or wave warrior.

The first I knew of Rickyís plan was when Tony Jennings told me. Ricky, not knowing the Cook Strait, had sought advice from Tony, who runs a sea kayaking business from Titahi Bay, the next port of call north of Makara. Tony and I had done a fair bit of paddling together, including a double kayak crossing of the Cook Strait, and many aborted attempts. I had just bought a half-share in an OC1, and Tony asked whether I might be interested in guiding Ricky. A great opportunity that I agreed to instantly.

Setting the date can be done in advance from tide tables, and Ricky had chosen a good one with low neap tides. The weather is not so predictable. Long range forecasts give a rough five day outlook, and daily forecasts provide just that, but around the Cook Strait neither are reliable. The long range forecasts can be supplemented by weather maps: the day forecasts only by a weather eye and crossed fingers.

Ricky arrived at my home on the Friday, excited by the expedition he had embarked on. He had a training paddle and a sleep, waking to a gray and blustery Wellington southerly. But even they have silver linings, often heralding clear weather.

We planned to cross the Strait at the narrows, to reach the far side on the 11 am slack tide. Allowing three and a half hours for the crossing and a half hour safety margin suggested a 7am start at Makara.

Rickyís Gisborne support boat had developed a last-minute steering problem. A couple of my diving buddies came to our rescue by offering to provide the service. We arranged to meet about 10 km west of Makara, an hour after our start.

Saturdayís 5am marine forecast started inauspiciously with a gale warning for Sea Area Cook. The forecast was for 15 knot southerlies dying out and 15 knot noríwesterlies by midday, increasing to gale force in the evening. That should allow us to do our morning business in light winds and be well clear by the time trouble came along. The support boat could pull us out if the gale came early to the party.

We set off quarter of an hour late and, after posing for the Dominion photographer, paddled to the point from where we could survey the crossing. Before us lay a beautiful glassy sea with barely any swell, and no wind. On the horizon the steep bluffs of the Marlborough Sounds stood out from the haze of distance. We set off, heading for Perano Head, the nearest point. The first half of the crossing was glorious. We warmed up quickly and were making excellent time, heading at that speed for a crossing time of little over three hours. Lining up South Island hills showed that we were keeping a good course. In the centre of the Strait there was a little more swell and tidal stream, but still exceptionally calm. However, about two-thirds of the way across the noríwester started up, bringing a rising sea with them.

Our support boat was nowhere to be seen. We had been in contact shortly after starting, but then our cell phone went incommunicado. Although the western Strait is generally rougher than the eastern, being two-thirds across we carried on. The winds rose further to 20 or 25 knots, and the seas rose with them. Rickyís drink system split so he consigned it to the deep, and borrowed my baler to empty the cockpit. After that his boat developed a leak, which he feared was structural, although seas breaking over his thin sprayskirt may have been the culprits. My own problem was that my port rudder pedal came loose, and was only held on by the continuous pressure of my foot.

We kept together and occasionally pulled in close to talk about the route and share our concerns over the invisibility of the support boat. On one of these occasions a malicious wave flipped my ama onto Rickyís bow, flipped his bow up, and so flipped me over.

Grabbing my paddle, I swam after my boat which was being blown away, thinking that I really shouldnít be doing this in the rising seas of the Cook Strait. It is easy enough to re-enter an outrigger, but a few strokes after doing so I capsized again with the loss of confidence. After the second re-entry I paddled cautiously until my confidence and speed returned. Ricky paddled on purposefully, keeping one eye on me, the other on Perano Head.

By this time we had been blown well off course, and had to work hard to make any headway. OC1s sit high on the water, as do their pilots, and catch a lot of wind. Ricky had wisely taken a spare paddle, strapped to his iako, but strapped with the blade vertical it acted as an extra wind-brake.

The last third of the trip took as long as - and was much harder work than - the first two-thirds. Eventually Raukawa rock became distinct from Perano Head, its tip rose slowly up and above the backdrop, and we were there. Out of the chop into idyllic calm behind the rock. Ricky ceremoniously touched land to claim the first crossing, and the achievement of a long held, and hard worked for, goal.

From there we were back in communication, and found that the support boat had been at Perano Head looking for us, but was now in rough seas off Makara. We headed into Tory Channel, cruised around the rocks, and landed to chat to the family looking after the Perano cattle station.

The winds had risen to near gale force, ruling out a return paddle. We could have paddled on to Picton for the ferry but luckily the support boat turned up, so after lunch and stories we disassembled the canoes and stowed them on board. We headed for the shelter of Plimmerton, as landing at Makara was no longer an option. The ride back seemed never ending, the boat crashing from wave to wave, spray surging over and soaking us. Finally we cruised into the calm of Porirua inlet, to thaw out, dry out and recover from the jolts and fumes.

Relaxing at home later, Ricky generously gave me one of his paddles. We wrote on it Cook Strait - First Outrigger Crossing - 18 November 1995, and signed it, Ricky dedicating it to his father. A fine momento of a classic trip, a new friend and a worthy cause.

Conrad Edwards, December 1995

Page last modified on June 18, 2006, at 08:03 PM