Buying and doing up an old yacht sounds like a perfect way to escape the rat race. But what’s it really like?
It could be a symptom of the housing crisis, or a crisis of the human spirit. For whatever reason, everyone I know is dreaming about quirky living situations. There’s the tiny house (crocheted blankets, silverbeet patch), the camper van (basil plant on the dashboard), the eco-commune (now financially viable thanks to Kiwibank’s co-ownership scheme), the converted barn (owl-less) and the digital nomad (tap tap tap from your bunk bed in Bali).
In 2021, lying not in a bunk but on the floor of our lounge deep in West Auckland suburbia, I contemplated my situation. Would my future be spent untangling socks from the lawn mower? Did living in the suburbs meant adventure was over for good?
I consulted my couch-slumped company. Did he share my worry? Haddon confessed he was concerned his career would devour his able-bodied years, spitting him out 65 and disillusioned. As a child he had imagined a life shared with the ocean, drawing felt-tip scows, ketches and frigates. Later he toyed with the idea of living on a boat.
Living on a boat! Having once spent three days vomiting inside a navy frigate myself, I became fixated with the idea. Boat life would be the antidote to my suburban doldrums, I was sure of it. We found a shabby yacht and a few months later we moved aboard.
For the following year Bayswater Marina was our home. We decided to take things slowly — see if we could withstand being cooped up inside a space smaller than some people’s bathrooms and whether we liked dashing up the pier to use the marina toilets in a downpour.
Winter was a slog, but in summer I felt like the luckiest mermaid alive, watching sunsets from the cockpit while the terns and shags gulped wriggling fish. We’d take the boat out in the weekends, following the old-fashioned highway of the sea to places you couldn’t otherwise go.
Doing up an old yacht is a romanticised task mainly comprising back-breaking and dangerous manual labour. Boats are poky. Undertaking a repair means contorting your bruised body into a tiny angular space, only to drop your screwdriver into an unreachable crevice. Boats are also moist — and moisture begets rot and rust. Remove one decayed bulkhead and you’re likely to uncover something even worse behind. And if you were cautious with the original purchase price of your boat, a greater sum will drain from your bank account as you attempt to make your bargain seaworthy.
Wanting to bring our craft up to a standard for making long coastal passages, we hired a surveyor and applied ourselves to their long list of suggested improvements. New lockers were required in the cockpit to increase buoyancy should a large wave swamp the rear. The bilge pumps (liquid vacuum cleaners that are used when you’re sinking) needed upgrading. The mainsheet track had to be rebuilt and the navigation lamps rewired. To replace the rigging, the mast had to first be removed using a crane located halfway up the Weiti River.
Being amateur boat-fixers, every task involved countless Google searches, trips to Burnsco, dinners of over-salted bakery sandwiches and long nights working by torchlight. I became adept with tools I never knew existed, learnt to laminate wood, repair fibreglass (it’s like papier-mâché) and say things like “3/8 inch imperial hex bolt in 316 stainless please”.
In autumn I got a new job in Te Whanganui-a-Tara and with little time to deliberate, decided to sail down. Haddon’s dad Ken, himself a homespun boatbuilder, agreed to accompany us on the voyage. The forecast showed a six-day weather window after which less favourable conditions would set in. We stuffed the lockers with curries and crackers and threw off the mooring lines.
Whether you take the East Coast route or head north around Cape Reinga and down the west coast, the distance between Tāmaki Makaurau and Te Whanganui-a-Tara is roughly the same – just over 600 nautical miles. That’s about six days’ sailing, non-stop, in fair winds.
For the first night and day conditions were perfect. We sped up the coast, out of Tīkapa Moana and past Kawau. It’s fair to say I was a little nervous – there are countless things that can go wrong in a boat, far from land, at night. No one goes to sea without tales of shipwrecks shelved like a little library in the corner of their mind.
With three aboard we kept an informal roster of watches. Ken would take the helm from dinnertime until midnight, then Haddon would take over, prodding me out of my sleeping bag before dawn. Aside from the odd tweak of the sails and glance at the chart, watches were mostly spent gazing at the horizon. One morning while rounding North Cape I spotted a humpback whale breaching, and over the other shoulder, an albatross gliding impossibly low over its own reflection. They were postcard scenes, but with the chance of making eye contact.
While we swept along, I’d indulge thoughts about how our boat’s black belly, fin keel and pair of splayed white sails made us part whale, part bird. Such vanity won’t keep a boat afloat, but the competency and grace of animals at sea is reassuring and seems to offer a lesson: there is no need to be spooked by the depth of the water or distance from land. Simple adjustments to one’s wings or fins or sails are all that is needed to handle whatever weather may arrive.
By the fourth day, the change in swell direction produced a yaw that made it impossible to sleep. On the fifth, with Taranaki lying low beyond the eastern horizon, the wind strengthened, sweeping the sea into mounds that approached side-on. Sometimes a wave would slosh into the cockpit or crack against the side of the hull. Sliding back and forth across the bunk, nauseous and a bit spooked, my mind conjured giant waves and sinking ships, benthic horrors of billowing hair and bubbles.
On that worst night we all stayed up, taking turns to clamber out to scan the horizon. Oil rigs crowned with flame appeared and vanished over the port bow. By mid-morning I’d been awake for 29 hours and was dehydrated from seasickness. The wind said my name and I saw a person who wasn’t there. I was as much disappointed by the banality of those fits of mind as I was startled to experience them. And it may have been born of sleeplessness, or renewed sensitivity to the scent of land after days at sea, but the whole morning the air into which we pointed smelled inexplicably of the vanilla-scented flowers of Heliotropium arborescens.
Finally, at dusk the following day, we reached Te Tauihu-o-te-Waka, dropping anchor in a deep, narrow cove, tying bow to tree. We slept as deeply as the emerald water around us and awoke to forested banks reproduced meticulously on the surface: an undersea forest. The final leg, crossing from Te Wai Pounamu to the lung-shaped harbour of Pari-ā-rua, was windless, the sea slack and glassy. Seals lolled on the surface, fins aloft as if awaiting high-fives.
Now we’ve settled into life in a new marina. There’s an enormous granddaddy whai (stingray) that glides under the hulls. Tiny fish dart through your reflection when you peer over the edge of the pier. I’m looking forward to raising the sails and visiting the sounds this summer.
For anyone harbouring the dream of a boat, I would offer the following advice. Your asset will not appreciate. Your feet will have little room to wriggle in a bed the shape of a slice of pizza. Your skin will freckle in the sun. You’ll learn to tolerate powdered milk in your coffee because your solar fridge is too tiny for the real thing. And you’ll have a peculiar chapter in your life during which — without really noticing — you’ll grow very fond of the sea.