A dangerous book
Something of a classic in the canon of New Zealand sailing literature, 'South Sea Vagabonds' is a remarkable book about a remarkable man and a remarkable boat. Read it, exhorts Matt Vance.
It’s the kind of book I give to good people and say, “Just read it.” I own three copies and most of them are out
on loan. I found the original copy in a musty, second-hand bookstore among a pile of abandoned dreams. For the sum of $9.95, I held in my hands the New Zealand sailor’s dream, not abandoned, but lived out in 252 glorious pages and 25 black-and-white plates.
Sailors sometimes fasten themselves to these rare books. South Sea Vagabonds was just such a book. It was published in October of 1939, well before advertising campaigns were the fashion and authored by a man who was not a writer.
The book’s irreverence meant it was not an instant best-seller, but slowly over time, the power of its simple narrative worked its way on board the boats and into the hearts of sailors throughout the world.
The eccentric author was a humble 29-year-old New Zealander, Johnny Wray, former accounts clerk, amateur boatbuilder, sailor and dreamer.
Although Johnny was an avid reader he had never published anything until he wrote South Sea Vagabonds, nor after, for that matter. This was a singular work of a lifetime. In the preface there is a stark statement: “I am not a writer. Never was, never will be.” This is as close as Johnny gets to bullshitting us. The rest of the book is too good not to be true.
Johnny was splendidly out of step with his time and in being so he managed to capture a collective revelation for his
readers. When South Sea Vagabonds was published, dropping out and cruising the South Pacific would not have been popular in a world priming itself for a great war. After the war however, society was ripe for change.
Long-range cruising was beginning to gain popularity and was no longer the realm of a few courageous souls like Johnny.
Among these sailors and dreamers, Johnny’s book found a following. They found it not with marketing hype and midnight
sales, but from wide-eyed friends who thrust it into their hands and whispered with missionary zeal, “Just read it.”
I keep a copy of the book on my yacht Whitney Rose. Every year or so I get the book down from its shelf, slide into my bunk
and go back with Johnny aboard his cutter, Ngataki, as he brings her to life with scrounged materials and ingenious economy.
He writes with a style that has you convinced you are a member of the Ngataki club, celebrating the triumphs of launching and laughing through the disasters with that sureness that only shared adversity and a sense of community can defy. His story is sketched out in bare sentences, parched chapter headings and kindled with dry humour, beneath which burns a simple dream.
Realising Johnny’s simple dream required the blessing of redundancy during the Great Depression. The ensuing poverty
removed all the complications of choice; it left him eight pounds ten (in cash), a clapped-out motorbike and time on his hands.
With the odds stacked firmly against success, Johnny set about designing and building his dream ship. In the two years it took to build the boat, Johnny learnt some valuable lessons: kauri needs a lot of steaming to bend without splitting; unsupported frames will topple and knock you out cold; a Royal Enfield motorbike will carry a 44-foot mast and a half-ton
engine scavenged from a turnip field; and it is possible to get 24 tons of boat and truck across a six-ton bridge.
When presented with such conundrums as how to fasten the kauri planks to the frames of Ngataki, Johnny found an
unconventional solution close at hand in a coil of discarded fencing wire. To protect the wire from rusting Johnny scraped
up bitumen from the road and hot-dipped the wire in it before baking it in his mother’s oven while she was out.
Johnny’s approach to caulking the carvel-planked hull of Ngataki showed equal ingenuity. With a limited supply of good
quality caulking cotton, Johnny tore up the best quality cotton he could find: a few pairs of his pyjamas, three shirts and the odd vest.
The launching of Ngataki was nothing short of spectacular. Getting her from the tin shed to the road proved the most
harrowing ordeal. The skids that were laid down to help her move were inadvertently over-greased: “travelling at a giddy
pace, she reached the end of the long length of skids and, with a shuddering, thundering crash, she nose-dived and skewed
around. Her bow ploughed deep into the asphalt and then went through a stone wall at the side of the path.” She was dropped again as she was jacked onto the trailer!
Trying to describe South Sea Vagabonds to the unread can be a difficult task. Johnny’s story is not just about building and
sailing a boat. Its essence is larger than that. It is a book about a passion for simplicity; it’s about making do. It tells us that life is incomplete without dreams and risk. It teaches the important and hard-to-appreciate truths that the ocean is beautiful and violent; that friends are precious and that there is a use for a ferret on a boat.
It’s a book about how to dream and how we might live.