Tawera may be handsome, but she isn’t the prettiest boat in the New Zealand Classic Fleet. On the other hand, every time we raced Taleisin or Thelma(the 115 year old Bailey cutter Larry rescued from
a state of neglect) among these ageless beauties [See March 2006 and subsequent 2006 to 2010 January newsletters for more on lovely Thelma], though my eye would be drawn to the lovingly restored gaffers from the turn of the century, my ears would always be drawn to 50 foot long, Tawera. At anchor before the start, on the way to the start line, as racing commenced and especially when the fleet again lay at anchor and apré race events began, laughter seemed to ring constantly from this well maintained and aggressively sailed 70 year old sloop.
Last Easter, during the regatta at our home on Kawau Island, the frivolity of her eight-man crew was on high pitch. When the barbeque lit up on our back deck I teased Mike Mahoney, Tawera’s owner saying, “How do you get such a fun crew together?” His answer stuck in my mind and sprang out this summer when Larry and I made a firm commitment to see more of New Zealand. Mike said, “Come down to the Nelson Regatta in January and sail with me, you’ll get your answer. Great racing, beautiful spot and loads of fun. We Irish call it ‘good craic’.”
In late January, we got Taleisin absolutely ready for a summer cruise, minus the fresh food, then set off for a week of South Island delights to be ended with three days of racing on board Tawera. (We definitely wanted to be back for the Mahurangi Regatta which we intended to use as the kick off for Taleisin’s meanderings.)
The first thing I noticed as we headed toward Nelson was how simple and elegant flying can be without all the security hassles of international destinations. For internal flights here in New Zealand there are no inspections to pass, no scanners. It’s little different than boarding an intercity bus, arrive 30 minutes early – climb on board and go.
It was 21 years since we’d sailed Taleisin through the Marlborough Sounds at the north of New Zealand’s south island. The rugged, exceptionally steep mountains lining these glacier carved fiords create spectacular Foehn winds. Dry downward gusts of 60 even 85 knots threw spray hundreds of feet into the air in anchorages where we usually had to creep close to shore to find depths less than a hundred feet. We’d found the sailing challenging, the views often spectacular, the people particularly rugged and interesting. Now, driving a rented car along the twisty narrow roads to see the same spots from land, we realized how isolated these fiords truly are. But the welcome, from the friends we’d made back then was as warm as anyone could wish. As we headed back toward Nelson to become “crew” I was already thinking of reasons to come back and rejoin Olive Stewart for a more serious look around her favorite “top of the South Island” spots.
I don’t think of myself as a competitive person, just one who likes sailing. Larry and I have rarely raced on other peoples boats as “just crew” sans the responsibilities of skipper and first mate. I expected to feel laid back and relaxed. But from the moment we joined Mike and the seven other men who’d taken time away to sail in the sun warmed waters of Golden Bay, every thought turned to getting the boat moving and keeping it moving. Mike’s older brother Eric is a well known Auckland yachting skipper. He has often helmed on Tawera. Like all older brothers, Eric definitely had control of the situation. Mike worked the foredeck and managed crew, assigning Larry to the cockpit to handle the running backstays, be a winch-tailer and grab the helm if necessary. Invited me to help in any way I could but mainly just be a rail hugger, camera snapper. But that lasted for five minutes. “Can someone monitor the radio?” That’s a job for me I realized, no one would miss my weight on the rail while I climbed below for a few minutes. Handheld VHF in pocket, back on the rail. “Anyone checked the starting sequence?” I jumped below and found the race instructions. Now I was really part of the action. Go-fer, back up to the mast halyard adjuster, food and water boy, I began to wonder if I had bit off more than I expected. Tawera, compared to Taleisin, is big. I often talked of climbing out of Taleisin’s companionway. Now I learned what climb really means as we bashed to windward in 30 knots, heeled over at 25 degrees. Adding to the challenge was Tawera’s complete lack of lifelines, cabin top handrails and all the additions that make “modern” boats far more cluttered, but definitely easier to get around on. But, as I gathered an impressive array of black and blue marks on hips, thighs and calves, I found the reason there is so much laughter from this ship. It’s owner, the crew he invites along, all love this boat and the privilege of being out on the water truly playing.
The beautiful mountains surrounding Golden Bay, the camaraderie on board and among the highly varied fleet, the hard sailing which left us all wet and salty, sun burned and wind blown, what a contrast from cruising. Then there was amazing barbeque when the second days racing took us across to Torrent Bay to anchor for the night. Local fisherman had brought in enough fresh scallops to feed at least a dozen to every crew members from 40 odd boats, then there were fresh greenlip mussels, squid rings, a whole slowly roasted pig all done right on the sand in a well sheltered bay reachable only by boat.
Our race back to Nelson saw the wind just forward of the beam, slowly rising from 15 to 25 knots, Tawera often topping 10 knots with an asymmetrical kite and full mainsail, in-jokes uniting a crew that now seemed to work with quiet, comfortable precision. “That was perfect sailing,” Larry announced as we crossed the finish line, “Glad we flew down here.” That evening added the final touch that makes us sure we want to head back to Nelson again. Seventeen of us, the crew, some of their partners and friends, all came together at the local Boatshed Café after hearing the race results at the Nelson Sailing Club. The chef, not quite prepared for such a large late night group (we got there after 9 PM) suggested we forget the menu and have what ever he felt like cooking up (Chef’s choice.) Each course he presented seemed better, the local wines sparkled and in the pauses between, John Rawson – mainsheet trimmer supreme – pulled out one or the other of his harmonicas to play the blues. Now I know why the crew of Tawera always seems to have more fun…they work darned hard at it.
Next newsletter I’ll tell about the three natural disasters that caused the first ever cancellation of the famous Mahurangi regatta and almost brought New Zealand to a standstill. But right now I have to wrap this up and pack because tomorrow we head for the USA to do seminars on the west coast and introduce my new book, Bull Canyon, a Boatbuilder, a Writer and other Wildlife. Boy am I excited!
Hope we meet up with some of you in the next weeks.
Lin and Larry