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Climate-powered atmospheric river alters cancellation algorithm

author Cimino
notified 8 February 2023

Mahurangi Harbour regatta morning 2023

Atmospheric Rivermouth: Mahurangi Regatta enticed but one intrepid sailor to anchor at the Mahurangi Heads, in 2023. Normally on a regatta morning, a thousand yachts, motor and sail, would fill the bays both sides of the harbour. The three vessels evident on the exposed western shore, left, are resident, moored, craft. image Mahurangi Magazine

Mahurangi Regatta 2023, or rather its cancellation, has added an important loop to the loose algorithm that has been run 46 times since Mahurangi Action revived an institution—of which only scant clues had survived, as to how it was run.

Initially, the sailing and shoreside events were considered in tandem, when the newspaper weather maps were being anxiously deciphered. It took an earlier La Niña to cause that approach to founder, when the 1989 regatta shoreside events were cancelled on account of the regional parkland at Sullivans Bay being serially rendered so sodden as to be incapable of parking more than a handful of cars. Not entirely surprisingly, instigators of the then-new Mahurangi Cup for classic wooden boats had scant sympathy for the thousands who, even then, flocked to Sullivans Bay – Ōtarawao annually for the “good old-fashioned, leave-your-wallet-at-home picnic regatta”. The sailing went ahead as scheduled, but the decimated attendance at the rescheduled shoreside-events regatta proved that, if factors rule out those shoreside events on regatta day, their cancellation, rather than postponement, is the practicable response.

 Windy wind gusts 20230128, forecast on 20230124

Convergent Dire Forecasts: When Windy and most of the other heavily relied upon models converged, this chart, provided to the Mahurangi Magazine on the Tuesday morning clinched the growing consensus that Mahurangi Action would be doing nobody any favours by delaying cancellation of the regatta shoreside events a minute longer. chart Windy | Chris Keenan

Meanwhile, back at the 2023 shoreside-events decision: On the Tuesday morning, for the first time, there was the strong agreement between forecasting models—the weather following  the regatta was likely to discourage the vast majority of boat owners from venturing to the Mahurangi for the regatta, because of how problematic the return voyage would likely be. In the event, on the Saturday morning, only one yacht was in evidence, sheltering on the eastern shore of the main body of the harbour, where invariably, in easterly conditions, hundreds would fill every available bay there. Consequently, a new conditional for the cancellation algorithm:

When the forecasts overwhelmingly indicate that visiting yachts and boats will likely face significant challenges to being returned to their ports of origin, in the days immediately following it, the Mahurangi Regatta largely cancels itself.

Cancellation of the Mahurangi Regatta, or any part of it, is never taken lightly. Records of early regattas are sparse, with the date of the earliest unknown. The first known to be recorded—diarised in 1858 by a farmer returning upriver from Auckland to Exe Creek now Duck Creek—gives no suggestion that it was the first. It is clear from newspaper records that it was held somewhat sporadically, although by the time it was put on hold during World War II, it had the hallmarks of having become a regular annual event. At least one regatta was held in the interim, but it took its 1977 revival by Mahurangi Action, then known as Friends of the Mahurangi, for the event to be consistently held annually.

When Wilma cancelled what would have been the 2011 Mahurangi Regatta, its cancellation was a painfully drawn-out process that did nobody any favours. It is entirely human to not want to be criticised for overreactingin its loaded, dog-whistling sense, but as Auckland’s mayor Wayne Brown demonstrated on 27 January, failing  to act can be equally, if not more, humiliating. If Aotearoa had the United States’ present proclivity for the practice, a recall election would already be underway the replace Brown. Such a process could be guaranteed to garner a considerably greater turnout than did his election in 2022—in which barely 16% of registered electors were motivated to support him.

Ngārewa Drive subsidence, cancelled Mahurangi Regatta 2011

Ex- Tropical Cyclone vs. Atmospheric River: The suggestion made to a once-was-more-than-enough regatta sailing-events organiser, that a plan b was always prudent, provoked a disparaging outburst. Half a year later, the rainfall that accompanied what was left of Wilma, on the Friday, was a good 80%81.5%, as recorded at what is now the Warkworth Radio Astronomical Observatory—data is not available from Te Muri much before 2014 of that which fell on 27 January 2023. image Mahurangi Magazine

By the time it cancelled the 2011 regatta, although it had been downgraded to an ex-tropical cyclone, Wilma was well anticipated, unlike the atmospheric river that drowned four and traumatised thousands. Initially, regatta organisers were mostly preoccupied with the difficulties that an easterly swell would pose skippers coming ashore at Sullivans Bay to register for the afternoon’s sailing events. Come 2023, as luck would have it, the Mahurangi Cruising Club had just completed phasing out entry-taking on the beach—skippers were to enter online, by midnight the Thursday before. The enter-on-the-day practice, as socially enjoyable as the custom was, had proven a headache for the handicappers, with cascading delays, and attendant, interminable dancer-short-changing disruption of the jazz orchestra’s setlist.

Like death, the loss of a regatta involves the five all-too familiar stages of grief. It is possible that the stage that involves the greatest potential for poor decisions is the bargaining stage. Here, the regatta cancellation algorithm can help: Mahurangi Regattas are cancelled, rather than postponed and rescheduled. Aside from the wasted energy that rumours of a rescheduling invariably generate, people’s calendars tend to be far too full, and their summers too short, for postponement to be a viable option.

There can be no disputing that, in the hierarchy of cancellation, the sailing should be last to go. For example, a classic wooden boat parade could be a glorious spectacle in conditions where the forecast sea state and/or wind-gust strength might otherwise make it unwise to race—parades, particularly, avoid start-line mayhem. As for the shoreside events, an easterly that might rule out the beach and swimming races, and the cherished sand sculpture competition, with  significant rain, would also rule out the barbecues, and the marquee and jazz orchestra. But while it has taken until 2023 for the wind and sea-state forecast for the days following  the regatta to enter the algorithm, the weather ahead of the weekend has long been taken into account. Obviously, the weather on the Friday afternoon and evening, when most visiting craft make the passage, racing or otherwise, largely determines attendance. But in respect to the Sullivans Bay picnic regatta, weather on the Wednesday—never mind the forecast—has long been seen to strongly influence attendance, informed directly by Waiwera mineral pools patronage datasmarty pants for anecdotal, indelibly remembered year-on-year-doubling to a ~125,000 plateau, contemporaneous with the opening of Wenderholm Regional Park.

Sack-race competitor, Scotts Landing, Mahurangi Regatta 2006

Flying Scotts Man: Rules are to be broken, but advisedly. In the case of the 2006 Mahurangi Regatta, the extenuating circumstances were that the then Auckland Regional Council had paid for the marquee and jazz orchestra, by way of ensuring a grand launch for its Mahurangi Action Plan, at Sullivans Bay. In the event, the forecast for strong easterlies meant that it would be potentially hazardous for folk to land, and return to their vessels afterwards, from the one exposed beach in the Mahurangi Harbour. In retrospect, the transferring of the beach events as well, as magnificent as they were, to Scotts Landing was unsound—the area available, and the private-light-vehicle access to it, was overwhelmed. photographer Max Cumming 2006

Knowing that the present La Niña, albeit waning, would put the 2023 regatta at greater than normal risk, a weather analyst was quietly recruited. The analysis he provided confirmed the organisers’ collective congealing conclusion, and allowed the Tuesday morning call—to cancel the Mahurangi Regatta shoreside events on both sides of the harbour—to be made with considerably more confidence.

Discussion of anthropogenic global heating, wickedly, is least likely to be embraced when its impacts are causing immediate distress—or even mere disappointment, such as being turned away from a madly anticipated rock concert, irresponsibly belatedly cancelled. Climate crises messengers, at such times, will be freely disparaged—infamously as “drongos”. The atmospheric-river phenomenon that has flooded into Auckland consciousness—spare a thought for Californians in the path of their increasingly climate-powered Pineapple Express—will result in billions of dollars in clean-up costs and “future-proofing”. But so woefully unprepared is the Makaurau isthmus, like metropolises worldwide, any future-proofing is likely to be near-term future-proofing, typically so shamelessly near-term as to contribute more to the problem than to the solution. Retrospectively replacing much of Auckland’s stormwater system to address the flooding that occurred in lower-lying swathes of the city is on a collision course with sea-level rise. Similarly, rebuilding homes that have been inundated with non-relocatable structures is to risk never being able to get ahead in the battle to adapt to climate impacts.

The broken Labour Party promise to fix the housing shortage typifies the paucity of neoliberal ideology whereby governments resile from their ancient duty to plan and build for their people. The few sticks wielded and carrots proffered did nothing to disrupt the self-interested, self-satisfied status quo. Five years on, overbuilt, overpriced, and underperforming—sometimes even still-leaky—homes remain the only game in town. It cannot be beyond the wit of New Zealanders to, not so much break the mould, but to build a brave new one. A given is planted-forest timber. Used in the manufacture of dwellings engineered to last for centuries, planted-forest timber is better than zero carbon—it is positively carbon sequestering. Built atop one-piece floors and subfloors—or, more correctly, rafts—consisting of ply-closed-cell-foam-ply, factory-produced composites, not only is a mountain of timber, steel and concrete substituted, but the resultant dwellings, by default, would be impervious to liquefaction and fully buoyant, and  relocatable. A stockpile of such buildings is exactly what is needed when states of emergency are declared in Aotearoa, or in the jurisdictions of her near neighbours.

Policy starting point—all day, every day—must be the big, bad fossil-fueled locomotive that is hurtling towards us so fast that there’s barely time to put an ear to the railsThe metaphor might not mean much to people deprived, as children, of the opportunity to routinely risk their wee lives playing on the railway tracks. Our bit of track playground had the added frisson of there being a blind cutting immediately between us and barely decelerating trains bursting into Te Kūiti!. Expressing or feigning indignation at anyone with the temerity to question politicians about big-picture exposure to climate impacts might score points with the incurious, but nor is it leadership. Ever since anthropogenic sea-level rise has been understood, it has been acknowledged that the combination of sea-level rise, king—or near-king—tidesFriday’s record-breaking rainfall event coincided with a tide only 100mm lower than the king tide of the day before, storm surge, and extreme rainfall will be when people glimpse what is coming down the climate tracks. Politicians may or may not succeed in scoring more points than they lose for shooting messengers, but the people, and particularly the young, collectively deserve better. While wise-after-the-event utterances regarding councils allowing building in what were subsequently acknowledged as flood plains, or have become so thanks to sea-level rise, may be correct, but retreat must be nuanced, and humane. This is where alternatives such as crisis aquatic architecture should be readily available, to avoid unnecessarily retraumatising families and communities by tearing them asunder in the storm’s aftermath, typically as much by bureaucratic inertia as by callous design.

Render of a buoyant foundation retrofit, Port Maria

Home Sweet Home: One option for houses salvageable after flooding—or, preferably, before inundation—is for them the be retrospectively provided with buoyant foundations. But even when unsalvageable, their replacement with dwellings manufactured from the red-zoned ground up, so to speak, offsite, would allow solutions short of the traumatising, draconian, one-size-fits-all condemning of entire neighbourhoods. image Buoyant Foundation Project

Back at the Mahurangi Regatta, readers deserve a brief explanation as to why an incorporated environmental society should be the principal regatta organiser. The proximate driver for the formation of the organisation was a woefully inadequate plan for treating Warkworth’s worse-than-untreated sewage discharge into the Mahurangi River, barely downstream of the town. But after three years of battling town and county councils, the Friendsoriginal name: Friends of the Mahurangi desired to demonstrate they were about more than just objecting to council plans. The resultant 1977 Mahurangi Regatta was intended as a one-off, but support for it as an annual event was immediate and comprehensive, not least of all for it being an opportunity to reconnect the Mahurangi Harbour community, bifurcated by the ending of the steamboat era, with the advent of all-weather roads. It is true that its organisation, from time to time, was the tail that wagged the dog, but as the one all-embracing, cross-harbour event, the Mahurangi Regatta is still the  opportunity to promote projects that nurture place, and sense of place. This summer’s regatta was to introduce the J Barry Ferguson  and its role trialling the planned Mahurangi Coastal Path. Being at an atmospheric rivermouth, on 27 January however, brought into sharp focus how much pressure Sullivans Bay is under every holiday weekend the weather is remotely conducive to beach-going. Had it proceeded, 28 January would have been the first picnic regatta since the covid-19 pandemic put Sullivans Bay on the map—no longer could Mahurangi West claim to be Auckland’s best-kept secret.

Mahurangi Regatta 1901, Henry Winkelmann

Winkelmann Heritage: Although the Mahurangi Regatta predates photography readily available in Aotearoa, this 1901 image perfectly captures the early steamboat era, the end of which spelt the end of a close-knit Mahurangi Harbour community. image Henry Winkelmann

Regardless of historical precedent, organisers are obliged to begin considering the impact of the Mahurangi Regatta on the regional parkland venue that has been pivotal to the event’s popularity. It would be ironic in the extreme if peak private-light-vehicle pressure prevented Sullivans Bay hosting an aquatic event that thousands sail or otherwise boat to. The obvious solution for those who would picnic at Sullivans Bay, and participate in the regatta shoreside events there, is avail themselves of the Mahurangi Coastal Path, and public transport. Such solution would displease some of those who consider the sense of splendid isolation that epitomises Te Muri inviolate. Ironically, such sentiment was the principal driver of the Mahurangi Coastal Path concept, which helped see off 1970s plans to bridge Te Muri Estuary and park 4000 cars behind the beach. Freshly minted regional parks policy—to open up Te Muri via upgraded Hungry Creek Road access—is looking now looking to be very soggy pie-in-the-sky. Between Tāmaki Makaurau taking a billion-dollar hit, and the bread-and-butter strategy of the Hipkins government and Mayor Brown’s slash-and-burn proclivity, the chances of tens of millions being voted to two-lane Hungry Creek Road are zero. A “principal” arrival centre at the western boundary of Te Muri Regional Park was never going to mitigate private-light-vehicle movements on Mahurangi West Road and Ngārewa Drive. The overwhelmingly most attractive feature of the 383 hectares of regional parkland in question is Te Muri Beach, period. The relative few who would routinely undertake the seven-kilometre return walk to Te Muri Beach and back would never measurably reduce Mahurangi West Road – Ngārewa Drive traffic. A footbridge across the Pūhoi Estuary however, would simultaneously put Te Muri within easy walking distance, and take pressure off Wenderholm Beach.

Before an ironclad case can be made for a Judge Arnold Turner Footbridge, however, demand needs to be convincingly demonstrated. Hence the purchase the J Barry Ferguson  by Mahurangi Action. Purpose designed and built to service landlocked regional parkland on the Mahurangi Peninsula, the sturdy little aluminium landing barge is well suited to trialling coastal-path practicalities. Because the vessel is in survey as a workboat, it can be operated for the enjoyment of its owners, the members of Mahurangi Action Incorporated and affiliated organisation. Before it can be operated as ferry, however, the craft needs certification under the Maritime Transport Act, and to be operated by a certificated maritime transport operator. This may or may not be achieved before the 2024 Mahurangi Regatta, but the, not inexpensive, process has been initiated. Members meantime, of local walking groups, Friends of Regional Parks, and visiting yacht and boating clubs, with some form of shared intent established, would qualify to participate in the trial.

J Barry Ferguson, boarding

Tinny Making Ironclad Case: With the surplus-to-council-operations aluminium landing barge J Barry Ferguson , Mahurangi Action plans to build an ironclad case for the Mahurangi Coastal Path as a sustainable mode of accessing Te Muri, and, once a year, the Mahurangi Regatta. Both Sullivans Bay and Scotts Landing are overcapacity, but only in respect to private-light-vehicle movements and parking. image Marek Planka

Pre-covid-19 lockdowns, the Mahurangi Regatta generated record crowds at Sullivans Bay. The next regatta, if it is favoured by fine weather during the preceding days, and a less-than dire forecast, will likely see Sullivans Bay seriously over capacity—over-capacity, that is, by its, the present private-light-vehicle dominant mode of access. For the first time, need for more-equitable and low-carbon is recognised by the management plan. For example, one of the 30 numbered management-plan intentions listed in respect to Wenderholm is to:

21. Advocate for public transport services to be provided to the park.

There are numerous measures that would reduce emissions, vehicle movements, and the loss of precious regional parkland to private-light-vehicle parking. For the first decades of the regatta’s revival, the Breeze  and William C Daldy  could both be relied upon to swell the spectator crowd, a role the Jane Gifford performed singlehandedly into the 1940s. As grand as would be to rebuild something of that tradition, only public transport into Wenderholm Regional Park, and a Pūhoi Estuary footbridge, would allow a significant number of today’s thousands of regatta adherents to attend by other than private light vehicle.

As the reviver of the event, Mahurangi Action Incorporated has a solemn duty to ensure that the more-than-165-year-old Makaurau–Mahurangi regatta is part of the climate solution, and continues as a beacon for how a regional community can, for a day, show civilisation at its best.

Scow Jane Gifford departing Wharf Street

Pre-Private-Light-Vehicle Regatta: While Sixteen-Percent Brown was deservedly deluged in opprobrium for his epic 27-January heel-dragging, humankind, collectively, is displaying a fatal inability to visualise other than a private-light-vehicle-dependant future. Here, the Jane Gifford departs for Mahurangi’s tidehead town, for the regatta, in the pre-all-weather-roads era. image The Jane Gifford Society



Aotea–FitzRoy link Despite the FitzRoy link between Aotearoa and meteorology, New Zealanders share the tiresome perennial universal tendency to disparage the work of forecasters. It appears that Homo sapiens sapiensas opposed to Homo sapiens, to acknowledge Homo sapiens idaltu, and to avoid the more cumbersome alternative of ‘anatomically modern human being’, and for sheer cussedness propensity for shooting the messenger is hardwired. Robert Fitzroy, father of the world’s first meteorological service, was also the first forecaster to be publicly derided for his work. This is only marginally better than being blamed for inclement weather, accurately forecast, or, even worse, the asinine custom of forecasters apologising in advance, for such weather. Fitzroy paid the ultimate price, at his own hand, of being a forecaster and sufferer of depression. Perhaps if the four-greats grandson of Charles II had been afforded the compliment of having Port FitzroyPort Fitzroy, Aotea – Great Barrier Island rendered with his staunch penchant for the royal r


Sign on Mahurangi Regatta shoreside-events crew button





Disclosure The author of this article is the secretary of both Mahurangi Action Incorporated and the Mahurangi Coastal Path Trust. The article published here, however, is that of the editorially independent, independently funded Mahurangi Magazine.

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