French Pass Memories – Here be Dragons!
By Roy Jones
I am filled with admiration when I contemplate the incredible courage of that ﬁrst French adventurer and sailor extraordinaire, Dumont D’Urville. Did his blood run cold the first time the awesome sight of French Pass unfolded in front of him? Was his inefficient sailing ship embayed and committed to negotiating the narrow passage, or did he negotiate the narrows perfectly conﬁdent in his sailing skills? The origin of Here be Dragons comes from the medieval practice of marking uncharted areas on maps with this phrase indicating danger to mariners. It aptly describes the sailing passage through French Pass. Here are some of my best French Pass memories.
My first French Pass memories and the sight of the Pass in full ﬂight, streaming pressure waves and boiling upwellings, struck a chill in me that has diminished little in the 50 years since.
Aged 17, a mate and I motored our homemade cabin cruiser around from Picton to D’Urville for two weeks holidays, Christmas 1962.
Right into water skiing then, we skied all the way from the launching ramp right to Catherine Cove, a trip of perhaps 40 miles. Maybe the weather has changed over the years, but I seem to remember days on end of ﬂat glassy seas and endless blue skies.
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At that time an old identity, Turi Elkington, ran the mail launch twice a week around D’Urville and one could obtain a pleasant full days trip for a modest amount and in interesting company.
At the top of D’Urville is Stephan Passage and one really spooky area is Hells Gate. There, old Turi would delight in terrifying already apprehensive passengers by perhaps going below or not paying attention as they approached Hells Gate, seeming to be unaware of the danger of the area.
On another occasion, we awoke to splashing in the shallows of Catherine Cove, the Elkington home bay. It was a large blue shark trying to get fish scraps in only inches of water. One of the Elkington lads, maybe 8 years old dashed, down and barehanded, grabbed the tail of the blue and dragged it clear of the water by himself. This really spooked us, not being too familiar with sharks of any kind. The lad thought it a hell of a joke, perhaps the shark did too, later, as it swam away!
During that pioneering first two weeks, I seem to recall culinary delights, such as bread and raspberry jam and on occasions even strawberry jam! Such was our worldly wisdom, frying fresh fish was beyond our wildest dreams.
One morning we managed to shoot two wild piglets of a litter we surprised. Oh, happy days. Mrs Elkington baked one for us in return for the other one…delicious roast pork for several days.
For the remainder of my bachelor days, I returned to D’Urville without fail, every Christmas plus as many long weekends as possible; however, I was really into diving. Another mate, Don McClymont and I spent many weeks each year, diving in the area from 1963 through to 1970 (before my freedom was abruptly terminated by marriage).
Following nights of endless planning, we would trek through the night in the A40 van with 10ft dinghy tied on top and mountains of dive gear on board. We very quickly found our limited resources required more than the one scuba tank each we possessed, so I set to and manufactured a Hookah unit upon which two divers could breathe down to 10 metres or one to 18 metres.
Initially, only one diver went down but this tactic went quickly, by the way, the second diver soon electing to tow the boat by the anchor while the first was free to determine the direction of travel. The Briggs and Stratton pounded away up in the dinghy until it ran out of fuel, whereupon we had to surface for a rest. In this fashion we explored immense amounts of coastline, the 5hp seagull outboard often chugged us home from up the Rangitoto’s after a long day’s adventure. We would generally lurk about in the Pass itself if bad weather occurred, committed for six hours by the tidal ﬂow. At full and low tides, the current actually stops for about 3 to 5 minutes before beginning to stream in the other direction. I determined that I had to dive between the lights directly in the pass itself. With scuba gear and a safety line attached, I descended from the boat straight down as the tide diminished.
Visibility was around 15-18 metres and I reached the bottom at 25 metres. Large rounded boulders covered in rubbery sea tulips (yes, they are what grab all those jigs!) At that time I sported a real grunty Triton hydraulic speargun, which had a reel attached and also the deadly attractor!!! A bicycle bell! At the bottom, I began ringing the bell, 2-3 rings then silence. About a minute or two passes with nothing happening…I could feel the tide begin to turn…then they arrived. A massive school of kingfish.
Straight into 4 metres away, then turn sideways before ﬂeeing. More instinctively I managed to hit one of about 35lb, square in the middle but not a killing shot. The reel begins to peel line while I head for the surface The tide is definitely on the way out and getting stronger by the minute, I could not swim against it, but fortunately, Don is keeping the safety line tight, and at a depth of about 15 metres I begin to take the strain of the fish. I could only hang onto the gun as retrieving the line was out of the question.
I surmised that the tide would eventually stream me to the surface and this was the case, but the Kingy was having nothing to do with that. I inﬂated my compensator (one of the first and homemade at that) Don slowly hauling me to the boat or vice versa.
At this stage, we had drifted into some of the heavy eddy’s and it was most unnerving with the current swirling me round and round, quite disorientating me. The king gradually began to come to me and I could eventually grasp the shaft, but I was still several metres away from the boat when it had a sudden surge of energy and tore itself from the shaft, while I tried to clutch both shaft and fish.
In vain, I watched its ﬂight into the depth. Don meanwhile had not even seen the fish. I couldn’t even say anything when I eventually got into the dinghy, he merely inspected the bent 12mm shaft of the Triton and said “I believe you”.
In the years to come, I will look back at some of the risks we took in our youth. They didn’t seem that dangerous at the time but we viewed them from the perfect safety of The Supreme Confidence of Youth. I wonder if our guardian angel has his breath back yet?
Nowadays I motor around from Havelock in Ririana, our 11-metre launch, total comfort, complete reliability, the wine chilled and the food fresh. I only dive if the water is 50 metres plus vis, 25 degrees plus with the seas ﬂat and inviting.
However, every time I approach the Pass my mouth gets a little dry, the air feels a little cooler as I watch that awesome event occur twice a day.
Fishing is my love, but D’Urville is my Mecca. With rod and reel, I relive and look forward to many battles with descendants of that king, forty-seven years ago now. Generally, they thrash the socks off me and I love it when they do, but once or twice they allow me to win, and that’s heaven. My French Pass memories are never far from my thoughts.