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Cruising Guide: Marlborough Sounds

French Pass to Kaikoura

A glance at the map of the Marlborough Sounds is enough get any boatie salivating. You want BAYS? We got heaps. Miles and miles of deep water coastline. You want ISLANDS? We got about a million down here. Think you can NAVIGATE? We’ll soon get you lost…

The entrance to the Marlborough Sounds is Picton. Picton is the South Island terminal for all of the inter island ferries, meaning that anyone travelling the country by road must pass through it. Every three or four hours the roads out of Picton rumble and quake for a few minutes as another shipload of vehicles is disgorged. Arrivals are somewhat more staggered with nervous, punctual and finally high speed travellers taking their places in the queues at the main wharf.

If you have only half an hour before your ferry leaves, the fringes of the main wharf accommodate a series of jetties for charter vessels and a few visiting boats. A stroll around here is much more fun than gobbling pies and bad coffee in the terminus cafe.

There is of course more to Picton than the main wharf. There is the town wharf, the base for most of the tour boats, fishing trips and Ted’s marine brokerage. Behind Ted’s are the fishing boats, a boatyard and the entrance to the city marina. On a fine day Careys boat yard will have its main doors open and you can watch them build a nice wooden boat.

The main marina, Waikawa, is a rather long and boring 3 kilometres away, so jump back in the car if you want to look at boats.

If you want to look at sounds, you can do what over a million of ordinary people do every year and catch an inter island ferry. You’ll get to oohs and aahs a bit and snap some selfies but you’ll get very jealous of the folks on the forty footer tootling merrily along on the stern quarter. So lets say you have the good sense to grab yourself a five day charter from any of the guys in the Picton and make it you at the helm of that forty footer...

Kenepuru Sound is rather like a saltwater lake. Unique in being almost surrounded by road, this is not to be held against it as it has encouraged a number of rather nice little lodges that are awake to the prestigious possibilities of having your vessel moored out the front for the evening. Many have even learned to appreciate the salty atmosphere you and your crew bring to their dining room.

Water access to Kenepuru is through the upper end of Pelorus Sound which terminates at Havelock and is proudly touted as the green shell mussel capital of the world. Havelock’s main attraction for the visiting mariner is the feeling of accomplishment to be gained on successfully navigating it’s extraordinarily tortuous channel. Havelock is the Sound’s back porch. A relaxed main street is full of charter booking offices and watery adventure companies, while down on the wharf interesting shellfish harvesters and fine old fishing boats jostle with pleasure craft, day tour operators, water taxis and charter vessels of all descriptions. Havelock is the sensible jumping off point for visiting d’Urville Island.

Some 20 miles long and 5 wide, it is the western most part of the Sounds and enjoys the sea breezes and sunshine of the Nelson region. A big island, it is only sparsely inhabited and is a marvellous cruising ground. Off its northern tip, rugged Stephens Island is a Tuatara sanctuary with the waters around it offering excellent fishing.

Between d’Urville and the main land, French Pass provides an unforgettable experience at any time other than slack water. The tides rip through here at up to 7 knots and the fearsome rocks and whirlpools that continue way beyond the narrows demand that the prudent mariner exercise all the prudence at his command.

Elmslie Bay, to the eastern side of the pass, is a delightful spot to wait for a tide change. With a good wharf and pleasant beach it is a popular holiday resort and a look-out on the headland makes a far safer rip viewing platform than your wheelhouse. On the other side of French Pass lies Nelson and the delights of Tasman and Golden Bays which are covered in the Abel Tasman section.