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Stewart Island NRS Mike Dawson 2020-0544


We’re isolated and alone on the remote Western Coast of New Zealand’s 3rd largest Island. The swell is building, the wind is building and it’s getting big, really big. The wind is beating us down, 40kts of bitterly cold Southerly right in the face. It’s tough to make progress and the team is exhausted.

This was an idea – to paddle around NZ’s 3rd largest island in the depths of winter’ that had been born in the heat of the Covid-19 New Zealand Lockdown. An adventure that had always been talked about but been sidelined for a variety of reasons. The quick passing comment of ‘Have you ever wanted to paddle around Stewart Island?’ very quickly evolved into logistics and dates. Suddenly it was locked it in. Despite years of white-water kayaking, I have to admit that Sea Kayaking is a totally new game and we found ourselves having countless conversations about swells, winds, currents and safe harbours to rest and shelter. Marine radios, forecasting, GPS Comms… the gear list went on and on. 2 months later on the July 21st we pushed off and headed out.  


Heading West along the edge of Foveaux Strait with Bluff hill silhouetted the Southern tip of the South Island in the dawn sun in the distance. Our progress was fast, and within minutes all signs of civilisation and the constant advice of the upcoming weather was left behind, and we were off. Rounding out of the bay the ocean began to play ball, the currents of the Foveaux Strait quickly dragging us out towards the North Cape and onto the West Coast. Foveaux Strait named Te Ara a Kiwa or The Path of the Whale is the infamous body of water that separates the Southern Coast of the South Island with Stewart Island is renown with ocean goers due to its deadly currents, viscous winds and scattered rocky islands usually hidden by low fog. We hugged the coastline and worked our way West. The scene was set – It was quiet out here. A place where only a few people venture on the land, let alone on the water. 

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As the days progressed it became obvious our biggest challenge was time. The roaring Westerly had picked up and our progress was slowed almost to a standstill. We hoped for great weather but planned for the worst. It was mid-winter after all. Day 1, 2, 3 & 4 saw slow progress along the Northern Coast, constantly pushed back by the gusting Westerlies. Eventually seeking shelter at the aptly named Christmas Village Hut to wait out the storm, recalculate our timeframe and continuously count our food. This gave us a moment to wonder inland and explore some of the magical forests that blanket the island right down to the ocean. Finally, the waves and wind subsided, and we went for it – Rounding the North West Cape and heading South, a massive day as we passed by beautiful remote Stewart Island.  Pre-made Radix meals safely tucked into our lifejackets as we pushed ahead to the DOC hut in Doughboy Bay – A safe harbour for the night. This day highlighted how relentless this coastline is. Our little minds were blown as we explored the bays of Long Harry, saw the towering pillars of the East Ruggedy Mountains and were swept through the currents of the inner passage. After the narrow gap of the Inner Passage we stayed out in the Ocean, by-passing the massive Mason Bay – an 8km long white sand beach that attracts some of the most epic {and isolated} surf in the country. This direct line saw us over 10kms out to sea, the island visible in the distance as we were treated to a slight tail swell and the wind swung Northerly wind gently pushing us South. We had been ambitious but we knew that if we didn’t cover ground the expedition was over. Our food was rationed for 10 days and we had already used 5 without even getting a ¼ of the way around. 


Doughboy bay is one of the best kept secrets on earth. The small hut was a stunning oasis resting on the edge of a white beach, nestled away amongst the thick Southern bush that blankets the edge of the bay. The 8km struggle against the brisk outgoing tide was instantly forgotten rounding the point and entering the bay. Sheltered from the wind, a tanned water stream beading down the beach combined with the golden light of the sun setting to the West. 

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The following morning, we pushed off in the dark, leaving the safety of Doughboy Bay, we entered the most exposed section of the circumnavigation – The 10km of coastline before Easy Harbour. Paddling down the West Coast was incredible, seeing the island from the sea and how rugged and wild it is. A coastline constantly bashed by the roaring 40’s combined with giant waves reaching their first landmass since being drummed up in Antarctica.


There’s a reason it’s an isolated in inhospitable place. Rocky bluffs meant there was no safe place to head back to shore until a large channel gifting access to the shelter of Kundy Island. Here we found out what it is like to battle the Southern Ocean swells. The wind picked up and the swell began to build, soon a few kilometres out to sea we found ourselves taking on huge breaking swells, combined with refracting swells bouncing off the bluffs. It was an intense few hours drawing on all our white-water experience.  


We needed to get to shelter and fast. The wind and waves were making it hard to communicate and make a plan, but it was obvious we all wanted to get back on solid ground. Finding the channel into Kundy Island was a challenge. With every rise of the swell we were eyeballing as far as we could see try and figure out whether the waves were breaking across the channel. A scenario that would have meant we would be pushed the wrong direction and into some unforgiving cliffs. We creeped towards the shore, getting some massive surfs down huge breaking swells that were peaking with the opposing current and shallower waters. Each surf we tried to edge our boats in the direction of Kundy Island. Some 2 kms later we pulled into the somewhat calmer waters and could relax. 


From here we worked our way South. Hiding behind scattered Islands unable to enter the open ocean. Our slow progress in the tough conditions was vital to get us further South to a better staging ground for rounding the South Cape. From here it was the waiting game for the swell to subside before making an attempt. This is a wild place and there was no way we wanted to head out in anything but manageable conditions.


The ocean here is unforgiving. 1 day later the conditions looked good – Variable winds with 2.6 SW Swell. We went for it and 7 hrs later we arrived into shelter and beauty of Port Pegasus, in the shadow of the giant granite domes of Gog & Magog. We dropped a line, caught a fish and relaxed after what was a fairly massive day paddling past the most epic coastal landscape imaginable.

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From here we were on the Eastern Coast. We started to see more and more fishing boats working the coastline feeding the constant demand for Southern Crayfish. We began to crush some big days. It seemed as though it was almost plain sailing to get back to Oban – Pegasus to Lords River – Lords River to Oban.


But in reality it was still 2 huge physically taxing days – Leaving Port Pegasus a pod of Dolphins surfaced and started swimming towards us, leading us out of the harbour and back into the Ocean. They seemed to stay with us, appearing every little while before heading out to sea. Heading North, we passed by bay after bay working North to Lords River, one of the most beautiful places on the journey. The river snakes its way inland letting us imagine any white-water gems that my be hidden in the hills here.


On dusk, as we were drying out on the beach at Lords River Hunters Hut a cray boat pulled in, a few comments before a bag of Crayfish was tossed to the beach next to us. Dinner was served, 6 prime sized NZ Cray tails. This was to be our last night before another big but achievable day would see us in Oban. We knew this would be a long one. Some 50k’s against a head wind and edging back into the currents of the Foveaux Strait.  


8 hrs later we rounded the Needles Point, and Oban was visible in the distance. We pushed it across the last exposed section of the trip before arriving at the edge of Half Moon Bay. The wind subsided and we enjoyed the last 2 kms as our fatigued and broken bodies steered our boats to a rest on the beach we’d set off from 12 days prior. The boats up to their final resting spot – We changed and headed to the pub for a beer! We weren’t the first and we won’t be the last, but we’d got it done.  

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