The newspaper headline said it all... "biggest snow fall in years on Mount Ruapehu", in the South Island the main divide was being plastered. The road between Christchurch and Ashburton was closed due to snow fall, the airforce was called in to rescue stranded sheep and numerous people had been left without power because of the wild weather. In such wintry conditions a very sane place to be is in front of a fire with a good book. Despite the severe storms that blow through 40 degrees south (NZ's latitude), winter can also offer some exceptional paddling. High pressure systems during July, August or September often bring beautifully still, calm weather for anything up to a week at a time and if you can rug up against the cooler temperatures it's a fine time to be on the water.
A great option for a winter sea kayak trip is the Abel Tasman National Park. There has been a lot of interest in the media over the last few years about the number of people visiting our parks and scenic attractions and if you've paddled the Abel Tasman in summer you'll know what beaches lined with sea kayaks and people jostling for space in the camp sites is like. Well.. if you head to the Abel Tasman in winter you can have the golden beaches, crystal clear water, bush and rocky headlands all to yourself!
Other than room to spread you wings, kayaking the Abel Tasman during the winter months has another major advantage - lack of the dreaded afternoon wind. Lack of wind makes a paddle from Tata Beach round Separation Point to Anapai Bay or Totaranui an achievable and safe option for most people, even folk that paddle infrequently. I believe Anapai Bay, with its exquisite beach and granite boulders is one of the most scenic and more remote spots in the park. If you're unable to organise a car shuttle to Totaranui then paddling back to Tata beach would make for a nice weekend trip.
If you have more time then a second day could have you enjoying the fur seals basking on Tonga Island and, with a lack of people, you'd have a choice of a camp sites between Bark Bay and Torrent Bay. Even the coveted Mosquito Bay you're likely to have to yourself! In winter a dip in Falls Creek waterfall may be out of the question, but is still worth a look to stretch the legs. A third day would have you paddling past Adele Island and onto the warm cafes in Marahau. Of course, a two or three day trip could be started in Marahua finishing in Totaranui or Tata Beach.
During a recent Sea kayaking expedition I was involved in Antarctica we learnt a few things about paddling in cold temperatures. Here's a few ideas that may make a winter sea kayak trip anywhere from Abel Tasman to Fiordland more inviting:
Get things sorted out into colour coded or marked bags so that the lunch and the cooker are easy to find. Have nibbles and snacks in easy to locate pockets in your paddle jacket. Fill a thermos with hot drink in case one of your party gets really cold (create a bungy system in the cockpit of your kayak so that the thermos is easy to locate).
The quality of your paddle clothing will contribute to your enjoyment. If you're going to spend time on the briny in the cold then its worth investing in a good quality paddle jacket - check out the range of a reputable manufacturer. A light weight polypropylene or merino wool top with, if it's really cold, a 200 weight fleece under your paddle jacket will keep you toastie. Think about your legs and feet. Long johns under some paddling shorts will keep you warm in New Zealand and a pair of socks in wet suit booties will keep feeling in your toes and not make you hesitant about leaping into the water when landing your kayak.
Once you start paddling you will get warm - so don't overdress!
There's potential to get cold when you've stopped paddling, have beached you kayak and are setting up camp. Plan this transition time to keep standing around time to a minimum, communicate the plan around the party. Know which dry bag the tent is in and who's going to set it up. Similarly where is the stove and who is going to get the billy on? Know which dry bag your dry clothes are in. If possible set up a clothes line and at least let some of the water drip out of your gear - you'll thank yourself in the morning.
Check the weather map, wait for one of those wonderful high pressure systems, dress up warm and get out there - just because it's winter doesn't mean you have to hang up your paddle!