It's late at night, the house is still, I'm sitting in my chair writing down my thoughts and memories as they flood in. I'm recovering from skin cancer surgery and tomorrow I face the prospect of a prostate biopsy.
I tried going to go to bed early tonight. I had no sleep in me despite my willingness to relax and empty my mind of thoughts. Instead the emptiness was overwhelmed with memories. Thinking about sun damaged skin, I had been reviewing some photographs of my early years in sailing. One of the earliest images I have in my collection must have been taken in my father's Heron sailing dinghy. We were returning from a day trip from Waiake Beach to Motutapu Island in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf. The image is a black and white photo which can only have been taken by my younger brother Marten from beside the centreboard case in the floor of the boat looking aft. I am on the helm and managing the mainsheet.
I must have been 8 years of age. My face is covered in freckles. There is no sign of sun protection of any kind.
I took to sailing with a passion. It was in my blood, I can stay at the helm of a sailboat for hours and hours at a time without tiring of it. Being in command of a small sailing craft is one of my enduring life pleasures.
It very likely began with my Father's passion for sailing. He read to us every evening before bedtime when we invariably insisted on stories and adventures involving sailing. Swallows and Amazons, A Wizard of Earthsea, the Hornblower series, The long Ships. The list is long and the stories mingled with my desire to live these adventures for myself.
As me and my 2 brothers grew our Father elected to build a succession of small boats. My first was a 2 foot long, sailing model of a 1930's style keel boat called Marina.
I kept control of it by attaching a light fishing line to its bow so I could haul it onto the other tack if it sailed out of my depth. I studied that little boat and experimented with its various adjustments to sails and rudder so that I understood the forces that were acting on that little model. Furthermore I could visualise myself in miniature, sailing on board my little model yacht.
Our first sail boat was built by our father with our willing participation, an Englishman, Jack Holt designed "Yachting World Heron" it was barely 12 feet long and featured a gunter rigged mainsail.
It was moved to and from the beach close to our home by a homemade, wooden trailer fashioned out of telegraph pole timbers by our resourceful father. It sat on the front axle of an old Model A Ford chassis which he had freed from entanglement in our ancient hedge row separating us from our neighbour's place.
This little boat served as our sailing school until our Father judged that we were ready to go solo. We covered great distances in this little boat enjoying picnics on many visible islands and local beaches within a days sail of our home beach. In it I fished, rowed, chased my model yachts, which I was beginning to build with greater skill and confidence.
As time went by my brothers and I began to yearn for independence so my father set about building 2 new boats, one was a 15 foot Frank Pelin designed, American Indian style canoe, the other a small 7 foot sailing dingy called a Piraat. I commandeered the canoe whilst my younger brother Marten took up the little Piraat. Ron was still a bit young to be out with us all day.
From Left: Brother Ron, The Piraat dinghy, sister Joanne, brother Marten.
That canoe encouraged me to make my own journeys along the coast and up all the local waterways that penetrated inland as far as fallen trees and waterfalls would allow. I became familiar with all the wildlife on land, in the air and in the sea. I saw many rare and special sights in that little canoe, spent many nights camping with my friends on those long summer days so long ago now.
A few years went by and our Father in his quest to build the ultimate family boat bought plans from Richard Hartley to build one of his 14 foot Trailer Sailers. Now we were old and skilled enough to be of real assistance and the new boat took shape very quickly. It was painted chocolate brown and orange, influenced by the popular colour fashion of the early 1970's and launched bearing the name I so carefully painted on the stern "Gimli" after our favourite Dwarf from The Lord of the Rings which our Father had been reading to us.
Gimli was a small ship. There was a cabin and a bunk, there were storage compartments, it even had a long shaft, 4 hp, Silver Century, Seagull outboard motor.
Gimli the 14 foot Hartley Trailer Sailer.
Poor Father had little opportunity to enjoy this new addition to the fleet. I hogged the use of it to his dismay and eventual annoyance.
Gimli and I travelled all over the Hauraki Gulf. At age 14 I was able to sail and manage it with perfect confidence. I sailed it with my Parents reluctant agreement all the way to Kauwau Island and back, a trip which lasted a week. The condition was that I should take a friend. Richard Morris was my crew, he had no idea how to sail but that did not matter, I knew enough for the both us. With a line trolloing over the stern as was my habit we never went short of fresh fish and we cruised the entireity of Kauwau Bay before returning home to the relief of my Mother and Father.
I recall a number of special details from that trip. The weather was perfect with a steady 15 knot sea breeze daily, we learned from my local fisherman friend Brian Burrell that there was a hermit living on Moturekereka, one of the small islands dotting the coastline offshore from Mahurangi. He assured us that a dozen beer would be the price Snow Hansen (he called himself) would require for a night's anchorage and possible access to his Island. We delivered the beer to his corrugated iron hovel overlooking the bay that his predecessor ( the real Snow Hansen) had created by dynamiting the hulk of the old barque Rewa. In hindsight he probably suffered from scurvey, he was very unwell and could barely walk. We anchored Gimli close in the lee of the old rusted remains and rowed ashore in the little dinghy that I had borrowed from my friend Mike Toy.
Mansion house Bay, Bon Accord Harbour, North Cove and a visit to the old copper mine were highlights along with an evening encounter with hundreds of wallabies whose meeting we disturbed in a beautiful grove amongst old pine trees.
Dolphins accompanied us all the way from Kauwau to Tiritiri Matangi right through the Tiri Passage.
Another adventure was to follow a year later. To his credit Father allowed me to take Gimli to Coromandel harbour via Waiheke Island. Again the condition was that I should take a friend so I took my school friend Peter Edney along, he was not a sailor either.
We set off from Waiake Beach early one morning and set a course for the distant Noises Islands, somewhere I had longed to visit as long as I had been sailing. We anchored Gimli in the glorious calm shelter of the southernmost Island and entered the clear water wearing our snorkelling gear. We swam the distance to shore and explored the rock coastline finding a beautiful sea cave. After a couple of hours in the water we made to return to Gimli. To our horror Gimli had decided to leave without us. On the incoming tide and with only a shingle bottom for the danforth anchor to hold in our little ship was away. We decided to swim for it and eventually, after an exhausting and increasingly desperate chase we caught up and barely managed to climb aboard with what little strength we had left!
We hoisted sail and continued on to Garden Cove on the northern coastline of Waiheke Island. This is a horseshoe shaped bay with a narrow entrance, perfect anchorage for a tiny vessel like ours. Peter chose to sleep ashore in his pup tent. We cooked our fresh kahawai over a fire on the beach before retiring for the night.
The next day there was very little wind so we drifted our way south and east past Gannet rock to finally enter the bay at the south eastern tip of the island where we anchored for the night. As we were setting up our gas stove with boom tent erected over the cockpit we felt something rub against the hull. By now it was quite dark. I held the Coleman lamp over the dark water and saw the biggest kingfish I had ever seen. It streaked away from the boat leaving a comet trail of green and blue phosphorescence the like of which I had never seen. Before long the entire bay was lit up by fish chasing fish, it was the most extraordinary sight!
The fish disappeared as quickly as they had come. That's when we decided to take a swim in that amazing phosphorescent water. We looked like something from the set of Avatar, our hairs and skin sparkling with other worldly light. The next morning we decided to make the crossing from Waiheke to Coromandel. Again there was little wind. What little there was came from the North. For a time we reached under mainsail, jib and an old flying dutchman jib that I I had rigged as a kind of early code one, reaching headsail. Under that rig Gimli was quick in the light air, fast enough to troll a line. I let the lure follow in our wake with the end of the line tied loosely around my foot as I steered us toward the distinctive entrance to Coromandel Harbour.
I awoke to a jolt on the line. I had drifted off to sleep just as a large kahawai took the lure. I was still slightly groggy, fumbling for the spool when suddenly a violent tug on the line and an enormous splash from the vicinity of my kahawai revealed some competition in the form of a thresher shark which neatly sliced the body of the fish leaving the head and intestines for us to argue over.
During the course of the rest of the day the wind left us and we drifted on a sea of oil. It was utterly still and calm. The tide began to run out of the Firth of Thames and we drifted along with it. I decided to start up the seagull outboard, a noisy, smelly, rattly, oily affair that I never liked much. It got us the rest of the way to the left of Whanganui Island which meant navigating the narrow passage through to Coromandel Harbour.
We pulled up to the long pier and tied up to a fishing boat named "Boy Roel" (my father's name coincidentally).
We took our wallets and walked the 2 miles in to Coromandel Township in search of fresh bread and the address of my old friend Isobel Airey. We found both. Isobel assured us that we would need a wash before she could tolerate a visit from us so she gave us soap so we could bathe ourselves in the rocky stream that flowed through her garden. How refreshing that clear fresh water was. Our hair was stiff with salt.
We chatted with Isobel, until late into the night before walking the 2 miles back to the boat. The next day we walked back into town to refill the fuel can with 2 stroke mix and add to our dwindling dried food supplies.
Our next port of call would be Great Barrier Island, another elusive and tantalising destination visible from our family home on a clear day, 60 miles away. We set out early the next morning taking the narrow passage our of Coromandel harbour on a building south westerly. We passed island after island off the western Coromandel shoreline. I judged that we were making good enough time to make the crossing to Tryphena Harbour. But that southwesterly kept on building and building until it was at gale force. By now we were off Channel Island and encountering a sea state the likes of which I had never seen. Gimli was like a cork being tossed in a shore break. We managed to reef the mainsail with the roller, the jib came down and we attempted to carry on but the wind kept building until it shrieked in the rigging and caused the sail to slam making the whole boat jump and pulse alarmingly. Then the leach tore off the sail, next the sail battens flogged out until there was not much left to work with. I was getting worried at this point and so made the decision to abandon the goal of Great Barrier Island. We tried to tack once the jib was reset but we could not get the bow through the eye of the wind. I started the motor, no mean feat in a bucking small boat in that steep, aggressive seaway. The motor was almost useless as the windage of the boat resisted the thrust of that little prop. Added to this the prop came clear of the water at every pitch the boat took. We eventually managed to gybe around, a very perilous maneuver but thankfully successful. We eased sheets and flew across the waves, lurching and diving, soaked to the skin with spray, finally reaching smoother seas near Happy Jack Island. We could not weather Happy Jack with its enticing Elephant Cove shelter so we had to carry on to Double Island where we gratefully anchored. I was particularly pleased with myself for having stowed a spare anchor as we needed it.
We set up both anchors at 90 degrees from each other off the bow and fixed the to both the bollard and the mast base. It blew so hard that Gimly sawed heavily from side to side like a wild horse all night long and all the next day, and the next. On our second day we were ashore when a large grey fishing trawler made its way heavily into our relatively sheltered anchorage. We rowed out to meet our new neighbours. The Larsen Brothers, Danes, in charge of a Watties fleet trawler. They were astonished at our presence there, both front windows of their ship had been stove in by the seas as they rounded the cape. They had a chiller hold full of fresh fish. We had had some success with our Hawaiian sling picking up the odd Moki but fresh deep water sole cooked in the comfort of the cabin was a welcome change. So was the Carlsberg beer!
They also had a radio! We were able to call the coastguard and police to set our parents worried minds at rest.
Peter and I climbed to the ridge of Rabbit Island and attempted to stand in the force of the gale. Tiri lighthouse reported gusts up to 70 knots during the peak of that gale.
We were relieved when on the 3rd day the wind had subsided. I had taken the time to sew basic repairs on the damaged mainsail and we made good use of the Reacher to get us well out into the Gulf on a beautiful sea breeze so that by the end of another long day in which we spotted a whale in the distance, we landed again at Waiake Beach where, at the local dairy, at the closing of the day we telephoned my father who gladly came to tow us home.
I have many more memories that I intend to document.
Hope you enjoy these stories.