They call Chicago “The Windy City” but it has nothing on New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. Whereas Chicago’s moniker was apparently derived for the hot air and rhetoric of local politicians, “Windy Wellington” is so named because it is just that, bloody windy; like a hurricane.
Old sailors’ claimed that below latitude 40 degrees south there is no law, and below 50 degrees, no God. Here then sits New Zealand vulnerable to just about everything nature can throw at it, earthquakes too. This is because New Zealand is a country that consists of two main long, thin islands located between two wide open stretches of water. Aside from some small scattered island specks there’s little either side for thousands of miles to stop weather fronts moving across the land.
Wellington sits plum in the middle of this zone, at the bottom of one island, aside Cook Strait, a rough and watery wind funnel where ocean, weather and tectonic plates collide.
Wind is to Wellington what sand is to the Sahara, it wouldn’t be quite the same without it, but it would be nice not to have so much.
Non-residents can be complimentary about the city’s notorious weather. “At least it’s not boring” said one. “You never know what you’re going to get from one day to the next”. But then they don’t live in Wellington. It would appear that you know exactly what you’re going to get, you just don’t know which way it’s coming, and how strong or for how long.
Few people would say that they actually moved to Wellington for the weather! But then if it had a Mediterranean climate with little more than a zephyr here and there, lots of people would want to live there, and house prices would be even more ridiculous.
What’s considered wind in other cities in the world wouldn’t rate a mention in Wellington. Wind gusts blow pedestrians off their feet and can flip high-sided vehicles, including 40-tonne truck and trailer units, over. People are sometimes forced to cling to lamp posts least they be blown away, literally. Should it be raining, umbrellas are rendered useless, quickly inverted and anyway, the rain can be horizontal, so why would you bother.
Wellington’s predominant wind is the northerly. Less frequent, but significantly colder, are southerlies. Southerlies, hailing from somewhere near or at Antarctica, can bring a covering of snow and ice to most of the south of the country, and parts of the north, including atop the hills of Wellington.
For the uninitiated landing at Wellington’s airport can be a terrifying experience. The airport is much like the country itself, narrow and surrounded by water. Located at Rongotai only nine kilometres from the city centre, the runway is extremely short by international standards, with houses on both sides and water at each end. Locals can always tell which way the wind is blowing by the direction planes take off and land; into the wind. Gusts of wind can throw jet aircraft off balance. Despite the powers of modern jet propulsion, planes sometimes land only to discover their wingtips are in danger of scraping the tarmac.
A common weather forecast for Wellington would be something like; ‘northerlies, strong in exposed places reaching gale force in areas decreasing overnight followed by southerlies for much of tomorrow; before winds changing to strong northerlies by evening.’
Wellington’s winds can be cruel. Aside from making maritime conditions hell on water and life difficult for pilots; they can torment the city’s cyclists. Arriving at work in the morning exhausted from battling head winds, cyclists can be just as exhausted heading home as the wind has by then turned and is coming from the opposite direction; a double whammy.
By comparison wind surfers love it and can reach high speeds. Wave jumping can take on a whole new meaning.
Wellington’s winds can rattle windows, slam doors, break windows and take roofs off houses.
Businesses can find life equally difficult. Sandwich boards go flying and shop fronts sometimes display the sign ‘please use other door due to wind.’ It will stop you going about your daily business, and that’s the line. The wind can detract from some of the simple pleasures and joys in life. No sitting outside reading the paper with a coffee, the pages will get ripped out of your hand.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say the only time it’s not windy in Wellington is when the wind is changing direction. This transitory calm may take an hour, a day maybe two or, unusually longer. But as they say in the shampoo commercial “it will happen.”
Such extremes of weather patterns barely throw Wellingtonians off their usual activities leisure activities. When many other jurisdictions would consider declaring a state of emergency, the locals go out and play sport.
This gives choosing to play with or against the wind a whole new meaning. In football, goalkeepers need be wary when taking place kicks. A gale force northerly can have the ball back in the goal mouth with the threat of scoring an own goal. Passes, once caught by a gust, couldn’t be overtaken by Usain Bolt, and can see the ball disappear out of sight off the field; new ball please.
Curious sights are the plastic shopping bags flying along heading out to sea. Seagulls, caught in gusts hover, making no forward progress.
Wellington houses, like those in the rest of the country, are predominantly made from wood. Wood, however, presents disadvantages when confronted with Wellington’s wild extremes of wind. It creaks, groans and it leaks. Inside some houses can be like being in a sailing ship listening to the rigging straining under the weight of the sails. Doors and windows won’t stay closed or open without a struggle. Curtains take on a life of their own, swaying as if moved by some invisible hand.
The wind can also be loud, making it difficult to sleep, or, in some cases, be heard. While outside the wind whistles and howls about like some demented ghoul, sometimes for days on end. In France, they have the Mistral, which blows across the Central Massif, impacting Mediterranean France, and can drive people to despair. There are laws dating from mediaeval times, where mitigating circumstances can be offered as defence for an accused, driven to temporary insanity by the wind.
By comparison, the wind can offer no such excuse in Wellington.
In 1993, it was decided to install a wind turbine on top of one of Wellington’s highest peaks at Brooklyn to test the feasibility of a wind farm. Wellingtonians would tell you there’s little need for any testing, there being an ample natural supply. The turbine is designed to switch off automatically if winds reach a critical point, making operation dangerous. The critical point is only 80 kph, so the turbine, capable of powering 80 houses, is switched off a lot. This did not save the gearing system of the turbine, which wasintended to last five years, but wore out after only three, and had to be replaced.
Today there is a 62 turbine wind farm in the back blocks near Wellington. Clearly visible from the air and out to sea, these 67 m high white sentinels anchor their wide 40 m long blades to the ground. Farmers have discovered a lucrative source of income for doingnothing, leasing land to electricity generators.
To survive Wellington’s wind they have to build structures tough. The city is ringed with hills, the most visible of which is Mt. Kaukau (Koko) at 445 m above sea level. Atop the hill, it’s not really a mountain by local standards, is Wellington's main television transmitter tower. It stands 122 m high and has stood since 1965. To have survived almost half-a-century in such an exposed spot is testament to some pretty impressive engineering and design capabilities. A climb to the summit will give you an impressive panorama of the city all the way out to sea.
To illustrate the force of Wellington’s wind, in 1968 the interisland ferry, Wahine, was entering Wellington harbour only to encounter two storms which collided simultaneously in Cook Strait. One storm came from Antarctica. The other was tropical Cyclone Giselle heading south from the Pacific, a kind of perfect storm. Wind gusts reached a phenomenal 275 kph (over 170 mph), disabling the ship and driving it on to rocks where it capsized and sank. Fifty-one people passengers died in what became known as the Wahine Disaster.
Tropical cyclones aside, a journey across Cook Strait can still give passengers a rough ride, often taking five hours instead of the scheduled three-and-a-half as the seas are so rough.
You can’t beat Wellington on a good day’ the advertisers used to say. When the wind isn’t blowing this has some truth to it. I don’t m ean to make Wellington sound horrible, it’s not. With its natural harbour surrounded by hills, Wellington can be a nice place. It’s just I’ve never been anywhere quite as windy. It’s a mark of Wellington’s winds that other places you go can be measured by the wind, or more likely, the lack of it.