The first questions that naturally pop up are, “Was it worth it?” and, “Would you recommend it?” My answers to both are: “maybe” and, “maybe”.
Fiordland is unquestionably the most beautiful part we have seen of this beautiful country. I LOVE scenery, so there’s that. The first thought I have, though, when thinking about our trip through the region is that it was an ordeal. I wouldn’t go so far as saying we shouldn’t have come, though, for two reasons: The first is that most of the beautiful places we got to see in Fiordland, we only got to see because we were there on our own boat. The second is that had we not done it, I know I would be haunted by thoughts of whether we could have, or should have. Past Me knows what Future Me is like and Past Me knows Future Me wouldn’t be able to sleep wondering.
Knowing what I know now, I’m glad we came, but now that we’ve ticked it off of the list, I think we both agree that neither of us feel the desire to do it again.
A trip through Fiordland definitely requires advanced to expert level sailing all of the time. The weather at the high latitudes of Fiordland is generally worse than farther north. The winds are higher and the seas are much bigger. Storms are fast-moving, frequent and fickle and safe places to hide from them are far apart. Those places, when found, often require a lot more work to safeguard the boat. This work is often made even more unpleasant by having to carry it out in a cold rain while wearing bulky gear. Almost everywhere that is safe in one wind or sea condition is terrifying in another. That, and the fact that the weather can deteriorate so quickly means that much closer attention has to be paid to the weather, day and night. Most of Fiordland has no infrastructure and disaster means no help is going to be readily available.
As much as we may not appreciate it in the moment, the skills we developed and the experience we gained coming down here are not without some worth of their own. These have added to our ever-growing repertoire. We never know when that skill set and that well of experience may need to be drawn upon to save our butts one day. For that reason, it’s probably best that cruising isn’t all easy downwind sailing and sundowners in the cockpit. Difficult or uncomfortable experiences can have value that may not be fully appreciated at the time. That’s why the airlines regularly put pilots into the simulator while somebody tries to “kill” them. It’s a tremendously stressful and unpleasant experience, but it ensures that if anything like that happens for real, it’s not the first time you’ve seen it. That way, you can keep your wits about you and work the problem instead of wasting seconds panicking and wondering what to do.
Then there are the sandflies. I’ve mentioned them a few times in passing, but after leaving Milford they were ubiquitous and unbearable until they finally started thinning out a little for us at Lake Cove. Then they were just awful. It’s not just that they’re ravenous and make for an awful, itchy bite, it’s that they make going anywhere outside such a hassle, which left us feeling trapped inside our own home most of the time. The only relief we got from them was out in the open sea in big winds, where anxiety and the discomfort of big waves made us unsure which was better. For me, I think it’s safe to say the sandflies ruined the trip for me. Had it not been for them, I think I would have a more equivocal view about a possible return in the future. (As a side note, we noticed a marked lack of the usual birdsong while in Fiordland. My theory is that the flies drove them out.)
As for recommending the trip to other cruisers, I would say it depends. Mostly, I wouldn’t because from the outside, it’s hard to judge someone’s level of confidence, competence and tolerance to risk – or their ability to manage their own risk level. That means that on balance, I would probably tell some cruisers who are perfectly capable to skip it, because I wouldn’t want to feel responsible for tipping the scales. Even so, I would only feel comfortable recommending it to sailors with more experience and stouter boats than ours, not because of any deficiencies in us, but because someone I don’t know well would need to have inherently higher margins of safety than Maryanne and I do for the equation to balance out. For the most part, I know where our risks lie and what our procedures are for mitigating them. Not so with strangers. Even then, I would only recommend it to someone who knows what they’re getting into and is willing to put up with the risk/discomfort of the trip. I don’t see it as safe or sensible for the floating gin palace crowd.
For the others, I would whole-heartedly recommend a trip to Fiordland using the usual park-your-boat-in-the-North-Island-and-tour-the-South-Island-by-car method. Fiordland is the visual jewel of a gorgeous country and it can’t be missed. Boat tours are pricey, but they do see some amazing stuff. Most are fast enough to outrun the damn sandflies, so the only time you may encounter them are a few when getting on and off the boats. Even better, take a helicopter ride and squish a few in the process.
For me, I’m glad we came, on balance. I couldn’t have let myself sail all of the way to New Zealand without seeing what many say is the best part. Driving down would have seemed like a copout. Our trip had some unquestionably miserable moments, but we proved to ourselves that we could survive them and come out the other side as better sailors and ones who work even better as a team. Also, Fiordland really is stunning. We didn’t collect any jars of mud or sandflies so that someday, we can open them up and relive the experience. What we did get is lots of great photos. These are rare and precious to us because we could only get them by doing what we did. Ten years from now, those photos will be the most tangible memories of the place and we will have forgotten most of the suffering that even enabled them to exist. We’ll see them and sigh at the beauty and feel once again that we are incredibly lucky that our lives have allowed us to see such places.
Fellow cruisers? If you are thinking of a trip to Fiordland - see Maryanne's thoughts and Tips